Atlanta United's Justin Meram (14) is congratulated by head coach Frank de Boer (right) after being subbed off against the Montreal Impact June 29, 2019, at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)
Photo: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportsw
Photo: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportsw

Fullback-less Atlanta United readying for fast Houston

With no available natural fullbacks, Atlanta United probably couldn’t pick a worse opponent to face than Houston, which it will host Wednesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Dynamo duo of Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto are among the fastest players in MLS. Elis has seven goals and seven assists. Quioto has two and two. They are supported centrally by Mauro Manotas (7 goals, 4 assists) and Tomas Martinez (3 goals)

“Their four up front, they have pace, good quality,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “Again, we have to be alert for every second ...”

So what can Atlanta United do to solve its absence of fullbacks? Brek Shea is out for the season after suffering an injury to his right knee Sunday. Franco Escobar will miss the game because of yellow-card accumulation. Mikey Ambrose and George Bello are injured. Flo Pogba, who can play left back, is also injured. That leaves Michael Parkhurst, a centerback who has filled in at fullback but doesn’t have the pace to deal with Elis and Quioto, and .... that’s it.

De Boer said the team may not use traditional fullbacks. Instead, it’s “possible” that the team may use wingbacks on either side of three centerbacks.

“We have to look at what is the best formation for Houston and how we can hurt them, and they can hurt us less,” de Boer said. “Our options are open.”

The 3-5-2, if that’s what de Boer selects, is the formation that Atlanta United used some during the 2018 regular season, and brought back in the playoffs to win the MLS Cup. The team didn’t use the 3-5-2 last year when it was thumped 4-0 at Houston in the 2018 opener. Elis didn’t score, but had two assists and three shots on goal in the first half.

The switch from the 4-3-3 to the 3-5-2 took place later during the regular season. In that formation, the fullbacks are wingbacks that play higher up the field but still have defensive responsibilities. Julian Gressel could play the right wingback. Dion Pereira or Justin Meram could play on the left. 

The wingbacks could avoid trying to win one-on-ones on the edges by funneling Houston’s speedsters toward the middle of the field into the mass of defensive midfielders and centerbacks.

“Both their wingers are really dangerous. ...” Gressel said. “We can’t just have 1v1’s against those guys. Need to have multiple guys. If he goes by first guy then the second guy is there. Maybe that’s been lacking for us a little bit.”

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