When they come up against each other on Sunday, it’s safe to assume that both Minnesota United FC and Atlanta United FC will be playing with an extra chip on their shoulder as they look to be the first of the two expansion sides to get a win.
We saw both franchises disappointed with their results from the first weekend of the season— Minnesota losing by four to the Portland Timbers and Atlanta surrendering two late goals in a game they were otherwise controlling against the New York Red Bulls.
But more important than the final scores, we also saw the foundation from which both sides will hope to build on as their seasons progress. And in this perspective, it wasn’t Minnesota’s 5-1 loss to Portland that was so jarring; it was their glaring struggles along the left side of the field amidst giving up those goals.
The Loons, for much of the 90 minutes against the Timbers, showed the first thing they need to improve upon as a team is trying to keep the ball while working their way down the left side. If those issues are not addressed, Atlanta could exploit this weakness.
To illustrate this point, consider the sequence below.
Following an already frenetic situation, Loons goalkeeper John Alvbage elected to play a rushed short pass to left back Justin Davis, who was in turn was immediately put in a tough spot. Davis was then forced to play a long ball down the left that gifted possession to the other team. It’s at these moments Minnesota will need to make much better decisions about managing the tempo, providing teammates with better passing options and putting teammates in positions where they are not under immediate pressure.
If this persists along Minnesota’s the left side, Atlanta will easily maintain the majority of possession when they play one another this weekend. And just like the video below shows, Atlanta has the ability to turn possession in their defensive third into a quality attacking opportunity.
Minnesota will be in for a long night if Atlanta can easily regain possession. Atlanta showed they have no trouble getting to the final 3rd pic.twitter.com/3I6ehRfLhd— sam (@11v11Sam) March 7, 2017
Down that same left side, Minnesota will also need to clean up moments like below. Below, they were unable to string together some short passes in the middle third and relieve pressure for their defenders. Instead, they allowed Portland to re-take the ball without much aggravation.
And avoid needlessly giving the ball away like this, where they should reasonably expect to keep possession pic.twitter.com/Nd2hdl3rfx— sam (@11v11Sam) March 7, 2017
Minnesota will need to connect more than two passes in such spots. Otherwise, they will not only be caught out of position, but Atlanta’s transition from defense to offense could be a lot more ruthless than Portland's considering what we saw in moments against the Red Bulls.
Atlanta also showed the kind of lethal potential they have quickly transitioning from defense to offense. pic.twitter.com/eMhRZjIFLc— sam (@11v11Sam) March 7, 2017
Of course it wasn't perfect on the right side for the Loons either as Jermaine Taylor struggled, but the answer to that question could come with Jerome Thiesson's arrival. Vadim Demidov and Francisco Calvo will also have to be much improved after subpar performances in Portland.
Considering Atlanta’s lone goal came from an attack down their opponent’s left side, you can bet Tata Martino will look to take advantage of all these facts as he builds on that. Atlanta's right winger, Hector Villalba, did not have a standout game against the Red Bulls but his speed could be the difference against the Loons.
Of course, it will be challenging for either team to make dramatic changes to their approach for this game given it will be only their second 90 minutes in the MLS. However, all larger shifts come in small increments. So whether it is Minnesota looking to sure up their play down the left side or Atlanta looking to expose their opposition, it will be great to keep an eye out for details into how these particular dynamics unfold.
Sam Polak is a tactical writer who authored the Audi Player Index playoff series, has been featured in FourFourTwo, the NSCAA and several other publications. He is also a youth and high school coach in Connecticut.