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Question the Enemy: Dirty South Soccer’s Sydney Hunte

Sydney gets us up to speed on the defending MLS Cup champions ahead of tonight’s game

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Atlanta United FC Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

It’s game day and the Philadelphia Union are back in Atlanta looking to redeem the nightmare double red card in the first half scenario that ruined the first meeting between the two teams last season. We all know about Atlanta United and how they’ve taken the league by storm in their first two seasons, winning MLS Cup last year, etc. etc.

Things haven’t been quite as rosy to start 2019 with the Five Stripes crashing out of the Concacaf Champions League and the fanbase waking up to the reality that even good teams can have bad days or not so great months.

I caught up with Sydney Hunte at our SB Nation peers Dirty South Soccer to give us the rundown on what’s been happening in Atlanta and what to expect today.

Atlanta fans seem pretty angsty with some of the recent results (sorry, no sympathy here). Besides the results, what are the biggest beefs and concerns with how the team is playing right now?

I think the feeling is that in its current form, Frank de Boer’s 3-4-3 system is impeding the offensive success Atlanta United had over its first two seasons. While Tata Martino opted for a more high-tempo, higher-speed attack helped by dynamic play in the midfield by Miguel Almiron, de Boer has used a style that relies more on the ball being played along the wings of the field. The problem is getting the players used to a new tactical system that isn’t as direct and fast as what Martino installed — as a result, the scoring, and wins, haven’t come as easy thus far. But there are some signs that de Boer is open to tweaking things to make better use of the players he has.

Could you elaborate a little more on how the team’s style has changed and how you think it will match up against the Union’s new 4-4-2 diamond midfield and high pressing system?

Again, it’s gone from that 3-5-2/4-3-3 style that Martino utilized to that 3-4-3 that relies more on your wingbacks advancing the ball through the flanks. Again, there’s been some problems with that coming together the way I feel de Boer would like it. First, that’s based both on the type of personnel he has at his disposal — this looked a little better on Wednesday with Mikey Ambrose and Julian Gressel at the wingback positions than it has with Brek Shea at LWB and Ambrose at RWB, but part of that has been due to Gressel recovering from injury. Second, as mentioned, it’s the fact that the team is more used to a quicker attacking style that makes better use of an attacking midfielder being able to play behind the striker and hit him on the attack, but track back in the defense when needed, win the ball and use his speed to advance it through the attacking channels. Almiron was great at this — and in an ideal world, a player like an Ezequiel Barco or Pity Martinez would be filling this role in the Paraguayan’s absence, so they’re missing him in that regard.

The Union started the game pretty well their last meeting in Atlanta and even after the double red card kept the game from being an embarrassment. What do you think the Union needs to do to get a result on Sunday?

I think this game can be won by the Union if they can exploit Atlanta’s back line and midfield. While it looked good on Wednesday in Concacaf Champions League against Monterrey in that 1-0 win — especially Miles Robinson — Atlanta’s three-man backline has let it down, and sometimes the defensive awareness you saw from this group last year hasn’t been there in critical moments. (Again, it returns to the new roles some of these individuals are being asked to fill.) If Philadelphia can find space to move the ball effectively, and if its high press can take Atlanta off the ball (this is a team that has traditionally struggled against the high press), it has a great chance to leave the Benz with three points.

Are there any injury concerns for Atlanta? What’s your projected starting XI for Atlanta?

The only lingering injury is that of Franco Escobar, who is recovering from a fracture of his right clavicle sustained in the preseason in January. It doesn’t look as if he will be available for selection on Sunday, but he’s very close and should be ready to go for Atlanta’s matchup against Columbus at the end of the month. George Bello has been looking to get fully fit after suffering a knock — it’s not serious and I’d expect him to at the very least be in the 18. That said, here’s how I think the XI will look (3-4-3 formation):

GK: Brad Guzan

Defense: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Michael Parkhurst, Miles Robinson

Midfield: Brek Shea (LWB), Eric Remedi, Darlington Nagbe, Julian Gressel (RWB)

Forwards: Ezequiel Barco (LW), Josef Martinez (ST), Pity Martinez (RW)

That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the formation take on somewhat of a 4-3-3 look with Barco coming in behind Josef Martinez and taking on more of a attacking midfielder role, given the fact that Atlanta saw some success moving the ball in the attack on Wednesday against Monterrey when they did so.