Finally showing their MLS Cup-winning form, Atlanta United looks to build on its first win of the season Saturday when it hosts FC Dallas.
The transition to coach Frank de Boer has been an uneven one for Atlanta (1-2-2), which had to replace playmaker and midfielder Miguel Almiron following his departure to Newcastle United. The Five Stripes did sign Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez to fill that spot, but the Argentine got off to a slow start and also missed a match through injury.
But it was another midfielder who gave Atlanta an unlikely spark. Ezequiel Barco, who entered the game as a 15th-minute substitute after Eric Remedi was forced off with a concussion, had a brace on either side of halftime as United recorded a 2-0 victory over the New England Revolution last Saturday.
Barco was set up on both goals by Hector Villalba, with the latter growing more comfortable on the wing in de Boer’s 4-4-1-1 set-up in contrast to the 4-3-3 Tata Martino used in leading Atlanta to the MLS Cup in its second year of existence.
“He’s always a threat with his unpredictable skills,” de Boer told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Villalba. “His speed is sometimes amazing. He’s very difficult for defenders to defend because sometimes you don’t know what he does because he’s always going 100 percent. You saw today the danger he created for us.”
Remedi has been ruled out of this match, with de Boer’s options in defensive midfield likely either Jeff Larentowicz or Darlington Nagbe. Pity Martinez could come off the bench for a second straight match as de Boer does not want to rush the playmaker back before he’s 100 percent.
FC Dallas (4-2-1) avoided back-to-back losses for the first time this season after recording a 2-1 victory over Portland last Saturday. Jesus Ferreira scored in the ninth minute and Reto Zeigler converted a penalty on the hour for the Hoops, and Jesse Gonzalez preserved the victory and finished with a season-high five saves.
While pleased with the victory, the Hoops know facing the defending champions are going to be a tall order, especially after Atlanta United took a huge step forward in regaining its form last weekend.
“It’s a good team. (Current) form or not, it’s a good team,” Dallas coach Luchi Gonzalez said after training Tuesday to the league’s official website. “They’re the champion. Just in that statement, that’s motivation for our group. That’s really exciting and motivating for us.”
Zeigler leads the team with three goals, but FC Dallas has gotten its 12 goals from seven different players.
FC Dallas rallied late for a 3-2 win in the only meeting between the teams last year as since-departed striker Tesho Akindele scored in the 86th and 89th minutes. Josef Martinez had a brace on either side of halftime for Atlanta’s goals, erasing a deficit created by Zeigler’s goal.
(Hector Villalba photo courtesy Atlanta United FC official Twitter account)