It’s a local matchup this weekend, with Nashville SC traveling to Atlanta United on Saturday. The Boys In Gold are one of three remaining undefeated sides in MLS, and /yowill have a tough test against the Five Stripes. To get a better look at Atlanta, we spoke with Atlanta United radio analyst Jason Longshore. Listen to the full conversation on the latest episode of Speedway Soccer, and read an abbreviated version of our conversation below.
Davey Shepherd: How are Atlanta bouncing back after a really disappointing 2020 season?
Jason Longshore: It’s been really exciting to watch the process of new manager Gabriel Heinze play out. It’s a process. It’s not happening overnight for Atlanta, but the building blocks of the way that they want to play are starting to come together. The final third is still the missing element for Atlanta, but defensively they’re really good. They’re defending away from their own goal, high up the field. They’re getting numbers forward and we’re starting to see some of the transitional tweaks play out in different matches, but the attack is still behind the rest of the team.
Ben Wright: Atlanta’s brought in several new signings. How have they adapted and what’s their role in this team?
JL: It’s been different with different guys. Santiago Sosa, coming in from River Plate, had a pretty high expectation, and he’s surpassed it. He’s a holding midfielder who can play in the back as well. There was a logjam at the position at River Plate as well, but it was surprising to some that they were willing to let him go. And we see why.
He’s incredibly talented. He can be a metronome in a possession-based team like Atlanta, but also defend really well. He can get physical and win the aerial duels. He can give you everything you need as a center-back, as a defensive midfielder, and I think even as an eight.
Alan Franco came in a bit later, and adding another center-back is something I think Heinze really wanted to do. There were a number of pursuits before Franco became the guy, and he was coming in from Independiente, which isn’t a possession based team. There were quarantine and visa periods. And then he was starting to get into the flow and get minutes, and now he has an ankle injury. He’s a physical center-back, and gives you a very different option from Miles Robinson or Anton Walkes.
DS: How has Josef Martínez been so far?
JL: He’s still getting back into it. It’s not really all that shocking. When you see guys get back from a long term ACL injury, the rhythm has been the hardest thing for him. I feel like his timing has been a little off.
One thing people have talked about is how much he’s dropping into midfield to get involved in the buildup play. That’s been a process that we’ve seen him go through since day one in Atlanta. A lot of people think 2017, where we mostly saw him splitting the center-backs, running into channels and getting onto throughballs. But since 2018 as Atlanta became a more possession based team, he dropped deeper and was getting more touches in midfield. In 2019 that became an even more prominent aspect of his role. It’s not a surprise to see him in those spots.
I think the biggest surprise if you’ve watched Martínez in his time in Atlanta is just the lack of timing on crosses and getting on the end of some of these deliveries. It’s one of the hardest things to get back. I think he just kind of has to play through it and keep finding ways to get on the scoresheet like he did against Seattle and Miami.
BW: How has the team performed so far? Have they lived up to expectations?
JL: They have for me. Studying Heinze’s way of playing and his ideas, I knew it was going to take a little bit of time. One of the biggest changes from the Frank de Boer era to the Gabriel Heinze era is how far away from your goal you’re defending, and the commitment it takes to play that way and constantly be in those 1v1 situations defensively. That has actually come faster than I would have thought.
But the other element that maybe has caught some by surprise is that alongside of that, Heinze wants his team to have a lot of the ball. Possession is prioritized. He wants his team to control games with the ball and not play off the opponent and have to react to what they do. I think some of the expectations here were a bit different than the reality, knowing the way that Heinze’s teams have played in the past.
DS: This matchup seems like one that the league really wants to be a rivalry, but it feels pretty congenial among fans. It’s not Atlanta versus Orlando. It doesn’t have the Nashville and Cincinnati feel to it. But the results on the field last year felt a bit different from that. The games got pretty chippy at times. How do you think these teams feel on the field and do you think it will become a legitimate rivalry?
JL: I think it honestly could happen this weekend. Gabriel Heinze is a different type of figure on the touchline. He will be very animated. He will get under Nashville’s skin at times because he’ll be very vocal. I don’t think Gary Smith will necessarily enjoy that. It will create friction, and I think that’s a good thing! I have no problem with that. We saw it with Heinze and [Philadelphia Union manager] Jim Curtin in Concacaf Champions League.
I think it is a rivalry that will grow. I feel like these are two of the best two teams in the Eastern Conference. And when you start competing to win trophies, and I think these teams will be in those positions for a while to come, that’s where rivalries can develop.
Outside of the Orlando matchup, Atlanta have had a rivalry with the Red Bulls when they were meeting in the playoffs. They’ve had a rivalry with NYCFC who’s been near the top of the conference for a long time. I think Atlanta and Nashville will be a rivalry that that animosity will start to come, and it might really start on Saturday.
Huge thanks to Jason for talking with us! Follow him on Twitter @Longshoe, and if you’re in the Atlanta area on Saturday, listen to his call of the match on 92.9 The Game!