What are Atlanta United's options without Miles Robinson and Michael Parkhurst?

Just two weeks ago, Atlanta United had a panoply of options in central defense. 

It was so good that Michael Parkhurst, one of the league's best-ever central defenders and club captain, couldn't get a game even when the Five Stripes shifted to three center backs. 

Perhaps, then, the 35-year-old had just finally lost a step?

In Round One of the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, Parkhurst showed that he could certainly still ball. It was just that Miles Robinson played at a Best XI level this season, earning his first cap with the US men's national team and forcing Parkhurst to the bench. Franco Escobar and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez were still two of the league's best and better suited to flanking Robinson in a back three than Parkhurst. Florentin Pogba was an overqualified backup.

Funny what two weeks can do. Robinson picked up a hamstring injury with the USMNT and Parkhurst dislocated his shoulder in the dying moments of Atlanta's 1-0 Round One win over the New England Revolution, where he was arguably Man of the Match. All of a sudden, Atlanta's depth in central defense is gone.

Here are the two stylistic options Frank de Boer has in front of him for the conference semifinals against the Philadelphia Union on Thursday (8 pm ET | ESPN2 in US; TVAS, TSN in Canada). 

Keep the back three

To retain how the club has played for months, Pogba could slot into the XI for Robinson/Parkhurst. This sparks two immediate questions.

  • One, the simpler prompt: Who plays as the central-most defender, Pogba or Gonzalez Pirez? 
  • Two, the more complex question: Can Atlanta play like this without Robinson/Parkhurst?

For the first, it's probably LGP because of his stature in the team, but there's no right answer. LGP is at his best when he's the aggressor, the one chasing or stepping forward and being proactive to win the ball or close down an attacker as his partner provides cover. This can't happen. 

That blur that darted across your screen in a flash whiffing on a clearance was Gonzalez Pirez. He would have to change his basic tenants if he played the Robinson role as a cerebral, last-line-of-defense contributor. But Pogba is similar in nature and LGP at least has the pace to have a better chance at recovering mistakes. That transitions easily to...

... can they really play this way without Robinson? There were even questions if Atlanta could keep the same style with Parkhurst, which he quickly assuaged by playing up to the standard he has for the majority of his career. 

Last season, Tata Martino decided his team couldn't play like that in the playoffs after a Decision Day collapse cost them both the Supporters' Shield and single-season record for points. They bunkered and countered their way to MLS Cup, albeit they don't have a game-breaking transitional talent like Miguel Almiron this go around. 

Shift to a 4-2-3-1

Around the 65th minute in Atlanta's win over New England, before Escobar scored the game-winning goal, De Boer shifted his side to a 4-2-3-1. Pogba went to left back, Escobar switched to right back and Parkhurst and Gonzalez Pirez slotted into the middle. It changed the structure and style, as Julian Gressel pushed to right attacking midfield and Tito Villalba entered on the opposite flank. 

No one is like 2018 Almiron in transition, but Villalba, Ezequiel Barco and Josef Martinez in space ain't a bad proposition. In the 3-4-2-1, there's no room for Villalba. The 4-2-3-1 is a chance to get him on the field and offer a new dimension. Alternatively, perhaps it's redemption for Pity Martinez with another slot open in attack. 

If De Boer opts for the 4-2-3-1, there are a number of personnel decisions in front of him:

  • Is it Pogba/LGP as the central partnership, then Escobar and Justin Meram as the fullbacks?
  • Is it LGP/Escobar in the middle, with Pogba on the left and Gressel on the right?
  • Does Larentowicz drop back in defense next to LGP?
  • How will all of this line up against the Philadelphia Union's tight 4-4-2 pressing diamond? 

Brenden Aaronson scored his first MLS goal at Atlanta on March 17 as the Union picked up a 1-1 draw. Atlanta played with three at the back, but it was their first version of the system this season, the more cautious and deliberate one. On Aug. 31, Atlanta went to Philly in their more proactive three-at-the-back system and lost 3-1

Bottom line: Missing the guy who finished third on the 2019 MLS Defender of the Year ballot, plus the dude who finished third on the 2018 MLS Defender of the Year ballot, provides no perfect solution.

Philly have questions of their own, as the status of both Alejandro Bedoya and Kacper Przybylko are up in the air. Thursday is going to be a fascinating encounter, beginning an hour before the match when the starting lineups are announced. 

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