“The Expansion Derby.” What a terrible name. Unfortunately, MLS has not reached pundit critical mass, thus we still have a few years left to cringe at awful buzzwords, geeky chants, and hit-or-miss puns. (I’m aware of the concept of both irony and hypocrisy.) I propose “A Tale of Two Expansions”: still kitsch, but more indicative of the way both teams’ seasons have gone. Minnesota United started off abysmally, but have actually managed to capture 10 out of 18 possible points this past month. For more info on what the Loons think of their late form, check out this interview with Nate Siems from Dirty South Soccer. (Side note: Minnesota have arguably the best SB Nation blog name.) But you came here to read our amateur analysis, right? Without further ado, here’re three storylines to watch for tonight as Atlanta United take on the Ice Princesses.
This game is a bit weird. It was supposed to be played in mid-August, but due to delays in construction on Mercedes Benz Stadium, it had to be moved to an open Tuesday in October, which just so happens to fall in the international break. This hurts Atlanta much more than Minnesota, with Brad Guzan and Josef Martinez both plying their trades abroad. Miguel is still hurt, and given that we’re nearing the end of this wild 10 game run with the playoffs locked up, I would not be surprised to see Tata Martino rotate the squad. Last week against the Revolution, he implemented a somewhat altered 4-2-3-1 that saw McCann, Villalba, and Gressel playing a flat line in favor of the usual pronged midfield.
With Alex Kann still out injured, Kyle Reynish is almost certain to get the start in goal. Julian Gressel will probably start the game, but he did appear a bit shaky against the Revolution. Who might come in for him, though, is a matter of debate.
Saturday was the first time in a long time that Atlanta United was out-possessed (60% to 40%). In the post-match, Tata expressed that the team was finally starting to feel the effects of this Herculean run. He intentionally had them play a more defensive and reserved game, as evidenced by the pressure stats.
— Tiotal Football (@TiotalFootball) October 2, 2017
It would make sense to continue this strategy. We’re currently fighting for a first-round bye, but Minnesota United is not the team we need to exert ourselves against in order to see that goal through to fruition. In their last game against Houston, the Loons spent quite a bit of time building up in their own half. The trio of Francisco Calvo, Collin Martin, and Miguel Ibarra dinked around a ton of short, reserved passes, which makes me think this game might be a battle of patience. Alternatively, with our defense playing so resolutely, Tata could opt for the rope-a-dope, letting Christian Ramirez and co. flounder around the middle third as they please before punishing on the counter.
Speaking of Christian Ramirez, he has far and away been Minnesota’s standout player. 13 goals and 3 assists are great numbers by bottom of the table standards (no disrespect, just contextualizing), and his 8.9 xG rating suggests he’s shifty enough to create quality chances for himself. Ramirez is also an excellent finisher of the ball, and when pressed, can play provider.
— Minnesota United FC (@MNUFC) September 24, 2017
Right behind Ramirez is Kevin Molino, an attacking mid who, while no Miguel Almiron, has had a hand in 14 goals this season (6 goals, 8 assists). He’s effective at creating space into which Ramirez can run and is working with 79% pass accuracy on the season. Whoever lines up in front of the back four for Atlanta will certainly have been told to shut these two down. And if they somehow do get through this auxiliary front, Ramirez and Molino will have to deal with the Wonderwall that is Michael Parkhust.
Armchair Analyst: Atlanta have pitched shutouts in six of their last seven. Michael Parkhurst has been *really* good pic.twitter.com/ntqPvwYH19
— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) October 1, 2017
This one kicks off at 7:00 p.m. on Fox Sports South. It’s not the billing of the season but is nevertheless a crucial step towards ensuring as advantageous a playoffs as possible. Come on you Five Stripes.
*Edit: A previous version of this post wrongly claimed Minnesota had no players on international duty.