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LAFC vs. Atlanta United: Three Questions

How are things going for the defending MLS Cup champs?

MLS: D.C. United at Atlanta United FC
There’s a new boss in Atlanta these days.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Football Club will host Atlanta United for the first time on Friday night, a game hotly anticipated (and perhaps also nerves-inducing) on both sides. Before the big clash takes place, we caught up on what’s going on with Atlanta United with Sydney Hunte of SB Nation’s Atlanta United blog Dirty South Soccer. Many thanks to Sydney for taking the time to answer my questions!

Angels on Parade asks Dirty South Soccer:

1. We’re past the halfway point of the first season under Frank de Boer, and where do things stand for Atlanta? I get the feeling it’s not quite the same as the Tata Martino days, but what’s different and why?

It was always going to be different in Atlanta with Martino leaving for El Tri and Miguel Almiron heading to Europe, but I don’t know if it really sunk in for the fans until they saw de Boer’s style of play fully unfold. The result has been a more deliberate, possession-based style that is different from the high-flying, Martino-era play that became Atlanta’s trademark over the first couple of years. It’s not a popular system among the fans (and, to be honest, among the players, either), but hopefully with some key pieces slowly but surely returning for Atlanta, it’ll become more of an offensive threat. Once it does, I think that it will be able to truly find its stride with the back end of the schedule coming up.

Keep in mind that this has not been a good away team, so if we see the team still continue to drop important results (especially being near the top of the East) outside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the frustration we’ve seen earlier in the season will build even more. That truly puts the onus on the team to get itself in a position to host one or multiple playoff matches with the new format beginning this year.

2. Two players with huge price tags are Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez. How are they both doing in the squad these days, and are they living up to the hype/transfer fees?

Barco has been a markedly better player in 2019 than he has been in 2018 - it’s been fun to see the leap he’s made as he’s become more acclimated with MLS. He’s scored 4 goals and an assist in 8 matches, but the problem is that he’s not played a league since May 5 as he’s been away on national duty with Argentina in the U-20 World Cup and has been working his way back from a knee injury. I think it’s a good shout that he’ll be on the field on Friday (probably as a sub to help get him fully match fit) with an eye toward starting him on August 3 at home against the Galaxy after an 8-day break.

Pity Martinez has been an enigma, to say the least. When he’s on his game, we see the great ball handling and technical ability he possessed while at River Plate, and we got a good look at that in the form of a great headed goal against D.C. United on Sunday. The problem is getting him to contribute consistently, which he simply hasn’t done just yet in this league; that’s not to mention some critical comments he made on Argentine radio about de Boer’s tactics - to be fair, he admitted that he needed to remain professional and put those frustrations aside to get better. De Boer, for his part, has expressed his dissatisfaction with Martinez through the press here in Atlanta, and, frankly, whether fans feel it was handled well or not, the points he’s made have been fair ones. The two seem to have come to an understanding (even with Martinez starting on the bench over the past couple of games), but hopefully, Pity’s goal against D.C. serves as a turning point.

3. Given Atlanta United’s status as defending MLS Cup champion, what’s the objective for the season? Title defense or bust, or is there a sense of accomplishment and honeymoon period now that they’ve got a league title? Asking for a friend.

I thought of a quote that Frank de Boer made earlier in the season about Atlanta fans being spoiled by the club’s success over its first two years. As you might imagine, it didn’t go over well! But the essence of what he was trying to say was missed, and it was this: Atlanta United had one of the best expansion seasons in league history and followed it up with a championship, so of course fans should expect the best from the club. What we saw earlier in the year was the first true spell of adversity it’s faced in its history, and it showed that, to answer your question, there isn’t really a honeymoon period, at least around here. This is a fanbase and organization that isn’t satisfied with just one championship; it wants to continue to make its mark on a global basis, and if it is to do so, it needs to put itself in a position to compete year in and year out.

Now, in the case of LAFC, it seems that there’s an equal sense of ambition, and I doubt that it would dial it back a bit if/when it wins MLS Cup (hopefully not this year, and not against Atlanta!). But the overarching thing to take from this is that soccer isn’t just a fad in Atlanta. This is a fanbase that cares deeply about its club, and it’s good to see that the feeling is mutual.

4. (Bonus) Prediction for Friday’s game?

To be honest, I don’t know if Atlanta in its current form are to the level LAFC are at right now - as I mentioned earlier, it’s not performed well away from home. While Atlanta will favor that more possession-based play I talked about earlier to try to keep the hosts off the ball, I’d have to say 3-1 with Carlos Vela bagging a brace and Josef Martinez extending his streak for the Five Stripes.

Find my answers to Sydney’s questions over at Dirty South Soccer.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!