Of all the “Two” sides in USL – the reserve teams of MLS clubs showing off their skills in the USL – Atlanta United 2 might just be the best and most talented.
They have speed and flash and skill in buckets, and they have enough talented players across the roster that they don’t have to fill out the starting XI with lesser guys that can just do a job. That said, all that individual talent has yet to coalesce into something equal to the sum of its parts. ATL2 look dangerous and talented, but they have yet to translate that into 90 minutes of dominant and compelling soccer in this, their first season.
The other important thing to note is that Atlanta 2 will be playing their third game in seven days when they face the Riverhounds on Saturday, having played against Louisville City at home last Saturday before having a Tuesday match in the Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett against the Charleston Battery. They will be a little tired, and they will need to rotate their squad when they come to Highmark Stadium.
That all probably has the Pittsburgh Riverhounds giddy with anticipation.
Formation and Tactics
Atlanta 2 plays in a 4-2-3-1 just like their senior club. They want to play off the ground and out of the back, using their speed and technical ability to get up the field and into space. They also rely on the long passing skills of Andrew Carleton to switch the play or launch a dangerous through-ball or diagonal pass in order to generate chances for their forwards and wings. The two ways Charleston counteracted this game plan in two ways.
First, they frequently tried to deny the entry pass to Carleton; and when he did get the ball, the Battery made sure to double and triple-team him. Second, Charleston marked and stayed close to the runners as the ball came into Carleton – Carleton would whip that pass in on one touch, so Battery defenders just need to keep their man close and not take their eyes off them. Blink, and Carleton will spring an attacker and serve him the assist. So the Battery made sure not to blink.
Because Atlanta 2 like to play out of the back, Charleston pressed high to make it hard for them through the first 70 minutes, until they built a 2-0 lead and could sit deep and park the bus. I think it’s a smart tactic but only if you have the legs for it. ATL’s lineup is young and can run all day, and I imagine that a team full of players trying to earn a call up from Tata Martino are used to being asked to play fast, one touch, under-pressure football. If you can’t press this team ferociously and constantly, you probably ought not to press them at all.
The last important note is that ATL 2 are fast and nimble, but not particularly big, and they don’t play a particularly physical brand of football. They struggled to win goal kicks at midfield, or high headed passes or flick-ons, or contest second balls, or win 50-50 balls. Charleston created several of the goals in their 3-0 win Tuesday by sending in a long ball and having their bigger, strong player outwork an ATL player, flick it on, and getting a goal. ATL2 are flashy and spritely, but they are not gritty. This is the antithesis of Pittsburgh’s ethos as a town and as a football club.
That clash of styles should make for some interesting soccer.
ATL are a bunch of kids, but man do these kids have talent. Attacking midfielder Carleton and wing midfielder Chris Goslin were on the USMNT U-17 team that went to the World Cup in India last year and made an impressive showing, getting to the quarter-finals. 2017 Superdraft pick Miles Robinson is a center back for the USMNT U-20 team. Pacey winger Lagos Kunga is also on that U-20 team. And to top it all off, on Tuesday, Atlanta 2 gave their first-ever start to 16 year-old striker Jackson Conway. The ‘experienced players’ on this team are all 22 and 23 year-olds. By comparison, 25 year-old left back AJ Cochran and 27 year-old goalkeeper Nicolas Caraux are practically senior citizens.
Like I said, it all adds up to a lot of speed and individual talent, but not a lot of size and strength. Charleston generally sat in a deep, tightly packed zone defense, ceded possession to Atlanta, and used numbers in the middle to make individual brilliance less relevant: as fantastic as Carleton can be, he can’t get through five guys standing directly between him and the goal.
Jack Metcalf, one of Atlanta’s defensive midfielders, is the other key player besides Carleton. He’s calm on the ball and he’s generally the one starting the attack. His style of play compares quite favorably to the Hounds own Kevin Kerr, although Kerr is a Scotsman and Metcalf is a Liverpudlian.
ATL2 goalkeeper Nicolas Caraux is a fine net minder. He looked a little shaky a few times with the ball at his feet under pressure, though, so hassling the French keeper might be another thing Pittsburgh could do to gain an advantage.
Atlanta United 2 won their season opener against Red Bulls II, then rattled off three straight ties to solid Eastern Conference opponents before getting blanked on Tuesday against Charleston. Tuesday also marked the first time ATL2 have been shutout since they began playing, which further exhibits how much this team likes to play front-foot, attacking, up-tempo football. Their 1-1-3 record has them in 11th place right now, three spots out of the playoff picture.