CARSON, Calif. — Atlanta United has finally made it to Hollywood, where they'll play a prominent role in this weekend's episode of “What Will Zlatan Do?” and they're looking to upstage the star of the show.
It's the Five Stripes' first trek to StubHub Center to face the LA Galaxy (Saturday, 10:30 pm; TV & streaming info) where the home team is wary of what they can do — and confident it can dim the spotlight that follows last year's breakout stars.
Atlanta United's explosive attack, perhaps the most entertaining thing in MLS at the moment, offers some unique challenges, and the Galaxy, who figure to give Zlatan Ibrahimovic his first home start, well understand what it'll face Saturday night.
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There are few sides in MLS so adept in the attack, and the key, LA head coach Sigi Schmid says, is their pace.
“Atlanta just has really good team speed,” he said. “There's a lot of players there with good speed — Josef Martinez, Almiron is one of the fastest players, if not the fastest, in the league, and then you have [Hector] Villalba, when he plays, he has some pace as well. ...
“They like to get out on the break, they like to counterattack, they try and stretch your defense as much as possible, an they're pretty physical as well. ... They want to come out and they want to press the first 10, 15 minutes of a half, if they can, so you've got to be prepared for that.”
The Five Stripes are among the more direct of MLS teams, and defenses must make difficult decisions in limited time when they come barreling down the field.
“They have a plethora of options,” Galaxy winger Chris Pontius told MLSsoccer.com. “When they go fast, they go fast. There's good service from the outside, and they've got a couple of different pieces that can hit you. That's a tough thing to defend against. That's why they're so good.”
Almiron is a mighty string-puller, but quieting Martinez is vital to stopping the league's top-ranked offensive outfit. The Venezuelan striker has a league-best five goals, and he's netted 24 in 26 career MLS regular-season games and 23 starts. He's got six multi-goal games, with four hat tricks, and Atlanta United is 12-0-2 when he puts the ball in the net.
“He's always playing on the edge of your backline. He's always looking to get there,” Schmid said. “There was one play last week that I watched five times, and he certainly looked offsides to me, but sometimes the offsides call doesn't happen, and he's always teetering with the edge. If that gets called, it gets called, and if it doesn't get called, then it's a goal.”
Atlanta is still looking for real success — it lost on penalties to Columbus Crew SC in the knockout round of last year's playoffs — but their approach to building an attractive and marvelously entertaining side has resonated around the league. Schmid sees some similarities with the Seattle Sounders team that joined the league, with Schmid as head coach, in 2009.
“I think they emulate some of the things Seattle did on and off the field,” he said. “When you can look at somebody's else's approach to it, a lot of times you can make a few things better, or you can sharpen up some things, and I think they did that. They have an extremely supportive owner in Arthur Blank, a guy who's really behind the team and believes in what they're doing. ...
“They've created a culture where, 'Hey, this is something fun, this is something hip to do, something that is worth you're entertainment dollar, and that's something the public in Atlanta has bought into, and they've come out and enjoyed the whole experience of MLS.”