How will Atlanta United line up against Philadelphia?

Atlanta United players react to a goal scored by Marcelino Moreno in the final minuets of their game Saturday, May 15, 2021 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (PHOTO/Daniel Varnado)
Caption
Atlanta United players react to a goal scored by Marcelino Moreno in the final minuets of their game Saturday, May 15, 2021 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (PHOTO/Daniel Varnado)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

A soccer team’s success often can depend upon its quality up the middle: goalkeeper, centerback(s), central midfielder, striker.

Teams that are strong up the middle typically are strong in the table.

So, how might Atlanta United deal with the loss of striker Josef Martinez for the next few games, and midfielder Emerson Hyndman likely for the rest of the season after he sustained a torn ACL in his right knee?

Based upon manager Gabriel Heinze’s previous comments about the team focusing on what it does best, I don’t expect you are going to see wholesale changes to formation or personnel.

Instead, I think Heinze will keep the same 4-3-3 formation he has used in all but a few minutes of one game, and simply plug-and-play personnel choices.

In place of Martinez, who has scored two goals in seven MLS games, I expect you’ll see Erick Torres. Many of you don’t like Torres and likely will want to see either Jackson Conway or Erik Lopez, but based upon the fact that Torres has been the second-choice striker since Lisandro Lopez left, I think he’ll be the guy again. Take solace in that Torres puts himself into good situations. He just needs to finish them. His non-penalty expected goal rate of 0.41 puts him into the 64th percent of MLS players, according to FBRef.com. And those have come in just 91 minutes played.

It would be intriguing to see Lopez get a chance, but he has worked as a winger almost exclusively this season and is starting to produce there. It would seem unwise to move him back there for only a few games as a stop-gap until Martinez returns.

Conway, a Homegrown signing, has yet to play for Atlanta United this season and has made one appearance for Atlanta United 2, and that came in the team’s season-opening game weeks ago. There have been two untapped opportunities for Conway to play for Atlanta United 2 during the break, which may be a sign that he is training and preparing for the first team. Or it could be a sign that he’s been training with the first team since it opened camp and is continuing to do so.

Hyndman’s replacement likely will be Franco Ibarra in a role that is better suited for his toughness and tackling ability. He is successful on 50 percent of his tackles, which is a great rate.

The position is about more than defense. Hyndman is much better going forward than he is tracking back. But Ibarra can focus mostly on defense because the team should have Ezequiel Barco back from playing well for Argentina’s U23 team.

How Heinze uses Barco is the true wild card.

Before Barco suffered a hamstring injury against New England in early April, Heinze used him mostly as an attacking midfielder. In the games he played before his injury, Atlanta United averaged 1.25 goals per game. Including the zero goals scored when Barco was on the field for a short time against New England, that average drops to one goal per game. And that average was boosted by three goals against a Chicago team that now appears to be among the worst in MLS.

After Barco suffered his injury, Heinze moved Moreno from the wing into the central midfield, where he played last season. Atlanta United is averaging 1.17 goals per game when Moreno is in the middle.

Though the offense seemed to look better with Moreno in the middle, statistically, there really hasn’t been a great difference between playing Barco or Moreno as the attacking midfielder.

The team’s expected goals per game reflects that: It bounces between 0.8 in the opener against Orlando to the high of 1.7 against Chicago, to then ranging between 0.9 (against Montreal) and 1.3 (New England and Miami). The team’s average in MLS games is 1.16, which is in the bottom 25 percent of MLS teams.

So, is Atlanta United’s spine better with Barco or Moreno in the middle?

That’s the question Heinze may be trying to answer.

There is one radical solution. Play Moreno in place of Hyndman and play Barco as the attacking midfielder.

Doing so will expose the team’s defense, but could allow Barco and Moreno to play off each other. It would also allow Heinze to get some more speed on the wings.

We shall see Sunday.