MARIETTA, Ga. — Atlanta United F.C. has a chance to capture the Supporters’ Shield on Sunday, but if the club accomplishes that feat, it will have done so without the help of two of its top playmakers.
Head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino confirmed to reporters Friday at the Five Stripes training grounds in Cobb County, Ga., that Miguel Almiron and Hector “Tito” Villalba will sit out Sunday’s 3 p.m. contest against the Chicago Fire.
Martino said the pair of South American studs will at least miss Sunday’s game. There is a possibility they could miss more time as Atlanta marches towards the playoffs.
Almiron, 24, injured his left hamstring on Oct. 6 during Atlanta’s 2-1 home win over the New England Revolution. Villalba, 24, suffered a “muscular injury” in his left thigh, according to reports, while training with the Paraguayan national team during the recent open FIFA window.
“Miggy is a really important player,” defensive midfielder Eric Remedi said earlier this week through a translator. “We’re hoping we’ll be able to replace him with some other guys and try to feel his absence as little as we can.”
Sunday will mark the first time in the two-season history of the club that Atlanta has played a league match without both Almiron and Villalba.
Along with Josef Martinez and Julian Gressel, Almiron and Villalba have consistently contributed to Atlanta’s goal-scoring efforts this season. Almiron has tallied 12 goals and 14 assists in 32 starts, while Villalba has racked up seven goals and nine assists in 27 appearances.
Without them on Sunday, Martino may have to lean on younger players, like Ezequiel Barco, Andrew Carleton or Brandon Vazquez. Romario Williams and veteran midfielder Kevin Kratz could be options too.
“I think this is a good opportunity for different guys to step up in their absence and a chance to show that our depth is strong,” Martino said Friday through a translator.
It seems likely that Martino will insert Barco into the starting lineup as the young Argentine filled in for Almiron when he went down against New England. Barco has also seen the most recent playing time with the first team out of the five players mentioned above. The 19-year-old has four goals and three assists in 24 appearances this season.
Without Almiron in the midfield, Darlington Nagbe is expecting that he and Remedi will have an increased workload.
“Miggy has a huge presence in (the midfield),” Nagbe said on Thursday. “I think for me and Eric, it’s just, can we push up a little bit more at times when needed.
“(Playing with Remedi) has been good. He’s another ball-winner. At the same time, he’s comfortable on the ball. He wants to get on the ball and help create attacks as well. I think he helps my game and I help his.”
Some good news on the injury front is that left back Greg Garza will be available for selection, Martino said. The 27-year-old American hasn’t played in a game since May 20. Garza re-injured his shoulder in that contest and had surgery on it a few days later. He resumed full training last week.
On paper, the Chicago Fire (8-17-7) don’t seem to pose much of a threat, but Martino warned that teams playing for only pride can be dangerous.
“Chicago doesn’t (have a chance to make the playoffs) but sometimes that’s what makes these games difficult, because they have nothing to lose,” Martino said. “We can expect a competitive game.”
Atlanta beat the Fire in Chicago in May in a league match this season, but lost to the Fire at home in June in a U.S. Open Cup match.
Martino added that he won’t be paying much attention to a game happening at the same time between the New York Red Bulls and the Philadelphia Union. If Atlanta wins and the Red Bulls lose, Martino’s side would secure the Supporters’ Shield outright.
“We have to win,” Martino said. “There is no other option. We know we need one point to get a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. We only depend on ourselves to win. No matter what happens with Red Bulls, if we win our two games, then we’ll win the league.”