Note: These questions were traded at the start of the week, before Atlanta lost 2-0 to Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday night.
Jordan Culver: Remember when Atlanta United got destroyed 4-0 to start the season? What’s happened since then to spark this unbeaten run?
Mitchell Northam: The biggest change since then has been the formation. In that game, [Atlanta United coach] Tata Martino stuck with what he tried doing most of the preseason, which was playing a four-man back line with Jeff Larentowicz at centerback and Chris McCann at CDM. It just didn’t work and the defense got torched.
The other thing about that game was that Michael Parkhurst wasn’t on the field for three of Houston’s four goals. He has somehow found the fountain of youth – Martino compared him to 40-year-old Manu Ginobili of the NBA – and has provided a steady hand for the defense. Ezequiel Barco also didn’t play in that game and Martino tried playing Miguel Almirón on the wing, another experiment that failed.
Since that epic blunder at Houston, Martino has stuck with a 3-5-2 formation and everything seems to be clicking. Some faces in it have changed, but Parkhurst has remained the main centerback, Almirón has played like an MVP as the formation’s CAM, Darlington Nagbe has become a great box-to box midfielder, Larentowicz has been strong at CDM, Josef Martínez has scored, and Julian Gressel and Greg Garza have been solid as wide wingbacks.
Martino says he wants to get back to a four-man back line, but the Five Stripes are unbeaten since he made the switch.
MN: Orlando City started the season with two losses and a draw, but has ripped off wins since. What’s been the difference for them?
JC: Well first, coach Jason Kreis decided a change in shape was necessary. Going from a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield to a 4-2-3-1 put Justin Meram back on the left wing (where he belongs) and put attacking threats behind Dom Dwyer – who has been another key to Orlando City’s success.
Dwyer has done more than score goals since his return from a quad strain six games ago. His hold-up play has been fantastic. He makes sacrificial runs into the penalty area to free up teammates. He’s even hustled back on defense.
After those two things, it’s been sort of a weird combination of things. The midfield pairing of Cristian Higuita and Yoshi Yotún has been solid. Midfielder-turned-striker-turned-winger Chris Mueller is putting together a Rookie of the Year campaign. Sacha Kljestan has been great. Will Johnson has provided stability at right back.
The club is jelling after a rough start that included a chunk of the club missing matches.
JC: Orlando City players said this match has a playoff vibe. Do you think Atlanta United players feel the same way?
MN: I didn’t get that vibe from Nagbe or Parkhurst on Tuesday, but that may be because those are two veteran players who aren’t trying to look that far ahead since the Five Stripes had a game on Wednesday against Sporting Kansas City. I do know that many Atlanta United fans plan to travel to Orlando for the game, which could create a playoff atmosphere from the stands.
MN: You mentioned Orlando players saying this match has a playoff vibe. This rivalry is barely a year old, but is it the best in MLS right now?
JC: Nope. It can’t be, because it’s only a year old.
Both clubs have intense fan bases, but rivalries are built from on-field moments. There needs to be some more classic matchups between the two clubs before it can truly be called a rivalry.
JC: Atlanta United had a match against Sporting KC on Wednesday. Any chance fatigue is a factor against Orlando City on Sunday?
MN: Absolutely. Atlanta’s game against Orlando will be its third in eight days and I expect Tata to test his depth during this stretch. There are a few players – Almirón, Nagbe, Larentowicz, Gressel and Martinez – who have started every game this season. My guess is that Tata will rest some of those guys either at home on Wednesday against SKC, or on Sunday at Orlando.
Atlanta has a few players on its bench who could probably start for other MLS teams, like Kevin Kratz, and some young players with something to prove, like Romario Williams and Miles Robinson. Those guys could see some action. I also expect Héctor Villalba to return to the starting lineup sometime soon as well. He’s come off the bench in the last two games.
MN: Yoshimar Yotún is playing really well right now. What’s been working for him? What can Atlanta do to stop him?
JC: Cristian Higuita has been great as a holding midfielder, which allows Yotún the freedom to get creative with his passing and to roam a bit. The two are on the same page, and Yotún has been able to find teammates down the field and deliver the ball with pinpoint accuracy.
How to stop him starts with taking away his options, which is easier said than done. One of the more underappreciated aspects of Orlando City’s attack is how players move without the ball.
Other than that, it’ll be interesting to see how United chooses to attack him – he’s got three goals and five assists and is in solid form.