It’s only been two and a half months since Atlanta United triumphed over the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup Final, but then beginning of the new season is already upon us. The Five Stripes take on Costa Rican team Herediano in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League tomorrow night at 10:00 PM. In anticipation of the match, here’s a look at our opponents Herediano, and the team that we should expect to roll out for the first competitive fixture of 2019.
Herediano qualified for the CCL after winning Costa Rican Primera División in December. Absent from the competition last season, Herediano have appeared in the CCL 7 times, with their best finish being a semi-finals appearance in 2015 where they lost to Mexican side Club América. They are currently about halfway through the Clausura section of their domestic season, and sit Ninth in the league table after nine matches. This apparent drop in form from the last season combined with the congestion of the Costa Rican schedule should prove advantageous for Atlanta United, who won’t have to worry about any league matches between the two legs of the competition.
One of the toughest jobs for Atlanta United may be identifying just who the threats for Herediano are. Through nine matches in league play, Herediano have eleven goals scored, with ten different goal scorers. Forward Aldo Magaña became Herediano’s first player with multiple goals this season just this past Sunday in a 1-1 draw. This seems to indicate a weakness or lack of consistency in attack compared to the rest of the league, as they have the third-fewest goals of any team in the Costa Rican first division. However, their eleven goals conceded is also the third-fewest allowed of any team, indicating a stronger than average defense.
For comparison in the CCL, we have fellow Costa Rican side Deportivo Saprissa. Saprissa achieved an impressive 1-0 victory over Mexican side Tigres UANL on Tuesday night, and currently sit second in the Costa Rican top flight with twenty goals scored and twelve conceded. This shows that a team should not be taken lightly simply because they are not from MLS or Liga MX in Mexico. Toronto’s heavy 4-0 defeat to Panamanian side Independiente is another warning sign of what can happen if you fail to take teams from smaller countries seriously in this competition.
As far as expectations for Atlanta United go, it would be incredibly surprising for Frank de Boer to go with anything less than a full-strength line-up. It remains to be seen what formation Atlanta will use, but until that’s announced it feels safe to assume that we will see the same 3-4-2-1 formation that was used in the only two preseason matches that were viewable by the public. Outside of those two, very little information was publicly available about the matches against the two Los Angeles MLS teams. Darlington Nagbe is widely expected to be on the bench after missing a large portion of the preseason after requesting a trade. Though it is now expected that he will be playing for the Five Stripes this season, he still missed the majority of the preseason, and likely isn’t fit to play 90 minutes in international competition. Depth in the middle of the park will be further strained due to the fact that neither of Amir Bashti or Anderson Asiedu have signed contracts with Atlanta United yet. Franco Escobar will also be missing due to injury.
Taking all that into account, we can get a relatively good idea of what the starting eleven will be. Brad Guzan will certainly start in goal barring any last second illness or injury. The back three will likely consist of Michael Parkhurst and Leandro González Pírez with one of Miles Robinson or Florentin Pogba. Robinson will probably take the third spot following reports of him coming into preseason much improved from last year, also given that Pogba was brought in in the middle of preseason and likely lacks match fitness. Left wingback will likely be Brek Shea, although United fans may wish to see George Bello. The midfield and right wingback spots are the most interesting spots on the field. Eric Remedi will take one of the midfield spots, but who lines up next to him? With Nagbe likely unable to start, the obvious answers are Jeff Larentowicz or Julian Gressel. If Frank de Boer prefers two midfielders of a more defensive style, then Larentowicz is the obvious choice. However, we saw Gressel deployed in the center a few times last season to great effect, and he brings a skill set much more comparable to Darlington Nagbe than any other alternatives. If Gressel starts in the middle, then Tito Villalba certainly starts on the right for the team, but if Larentowicz is preferred inside, then Gressel likely pushes Villalba to the bench. The attacking trio is almost certainly set with Ezequiel Barco, Gonzalo Martínez and Josef Martínez, with the first two likely sitting behind and creating chances for Josef up top.
I see this being a tougher matchup for Atlanta United than many may be expecting. Herediano will likely sit back and look to repel the Atlanta attack, before springing forward on the counter themselves. However, it would seem unlikely that any team could hold off Atlanta’s dynamic front line for a full ninety minutes, and assuming Atlanta scores first, they likely get a second as Herediano look to get forward more and equalize. Final prediction: 2-0 to Atlanta United on the night.
Other Writers Predictions:
Mason: 2-0 Atlanta United
Santiago: 2-0 Atlanta United
Daniel: 4-0 Atlanta United