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Vancouver Whitecaps look to bend not break against Atlanta United

Vancouver Whitecaps defender Kendall Watson (4) reacts to a call against Atlanta United midfielder Miguel Almiron (10) during the second half at BC Place. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

After taking all three points on the road against the Houston Dynamo last week, the Vancouver Whitecaps look to build on their road record, currently the best in Major League Soccer.

They will travel to Georgia for a 7:30 p.m. match Saturday against Atlanta United, one of the most exciting teams in the league as an expansion franchise last year. 

The Whitecaps lead the league with 18 road wins in the last three seasons. How do they do it?

The answer is simple and was on display for everyone to see last Saturday in Houston. Vancouver is built to go on the counter. While that can lead to absurd amounts of possession by the home team — Houston had 67 percent ball possession at times last weekend — the Whitecaps have players that can quickly break forward and capitalize.

Counter-football is not just the tactical foundation for the Whitecaps on the road, but also home at BC Place. It’s also the reason the club was not too unhappy about the departure of superstar Fredy Montero last summer. While a prolific goalscorer, the Colombian often held play up instead of quickly playing the ball forward.

In Venezuelan forward Anthony Blondell and experienced striker Kei Kamara, the Caps have brought in two dynamic and fast forwards that complement the already existing attacking lineup that includes players such as Cristian Techera, Alphonso Davies, Brek Shea, Bernie Ibini and Erik Hurtado. 

The tactic could be described as flexible concrete — able to absorb pressure, handle a beating, bend when needed but remain in tact — and the Whitecaps hope it will be successful at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where Atlanta coach Tata Martino has his side playing cultured football. The Five Stripes like to hold the majority of possession, with Julian Gressel a pivotal player in midfield. 

Atlanta lost its season opener 4-0 to Houston, then won its home opener 3-1 against DC United after switching to a 3-5-2 formation.

“It’s going to be a very difficult game,” Vancouver coach Carl Robinson said. “Obviously, the slight formation tweak worked for them on Saturday. Will they do the same again? I don’t know. Their front four players are very high-end caliber players. We need to make sure we switch on with them and eliminate their chances and strengths.”

Atlanta already sold 45,000 tickets for the game Saturday. The Whitecaps are used to playing in front of large crowds, though, due to their rivalry with the Seattle Sounders. Regardless, this will be the most significant task the Whitecaps face early in the season.

The strategy once again will be to sit deep, absorb pressure and quickly hit Atlanta on the counterattack.

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