MARIETTA, Ga. — Atlanta United will host the LA Galaxy Saturday with the visitors missing their luxury sports car that is Zlatan Ibrahimović. Ibrahimović’s yellow-card suspension warrants a sigh of relief from the Five Stripes, right? Maybe not. The Galaxy are forced to throw an entirely different look at Atlanta, and it may be just as potent.
Uriel Antuna, the 21-year-old Mexico international, typically plays on the wing for the Galaxy. With Zlatan booted, Antuna is a candidate to move inside as a center forward. He played the position against Minnesota United on March 16, and his performance drew rave reviews.
“Uriel was amazing,” LA’s Sebastian Lletget told MLSSoccer.com. “It created so much space for us as midfielders, and I think that was probably, looking back, the game we most dominated as a whole. He [gave us] just a different dimension. I think we have to sort of find a way to do something like that [in Atlanta] and replicate what we did against Minnesota.”
Antuna did not take a shot against the Loons. But he created room for his teammates to work with off-ball runs all over the attacking half, and his passing was effective. If Ibrahimović is a lion leading the attack — we’re changing analogies here; Zlatan provides so many — Antuna does the job as an elusive, buzzing fly.
Also missing from the LA attack will be midfielder Efrain Alvarez, who received a red card in the Galaxy’s 4-0 loss at the Portland Timbers last Sunday. If Guillermo Barros Schelotto deploys Antuna centrally Saturday afternoon, Atlanta manager Frank de Boer believes his team must stay switched on and not lose track of the forward.
“Zlatan is a target man,” de Boer told reporters Friday. “With him, the ball at his chest, he can protect himself because he’s so good and so strong, but also he can flick it when Alvarez is always reacting on him. So that was always a good combination.
“With Antuna, he is very mobile. He makes runs without the ball. Sometimes Zlatan also does it, but I think it’s more natural for Antuna to make those runs. It’s a different approach and we have to adapt.”
Antuna was one of the last names on Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s Mexico roster for this summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup. He proved his worth, opening El Tri’s tournament with a hat trick against Cuba and tallying four goals and two assists in five games.
“I think he had a great tournament, Gold Cup, and I think he is an interesting player, how he plays also on the wing,” de Boer said. “He’s important for the Galaxy.”
Much of the talk surrounding Atlanta lately has been the desire held by some players and fans to see the team play a more attacking style, to press higher in defense and attempt to win the ball back closer to the opponent’s goal. Many teams that visit Mercedes-Benz Stadium opt to play in a low defensive block, giving the Five Stripes plenty of possession in their attacking half. Should the Galaxy adopt that strategy, Antuna will be a threat to punish Atlanta on the counter.
“He’s very mobile, fast,” de Boer told reporters. “We have to be aware. When we talked about wanting to press high, then we have a lot of space in the back, and he will try to exploit those positions.”