By Ben Wright (@benwright), editor.
Nashville SC play their first ever match in Major League Soccer this Saturday, taking on Atlanta United at Nissan Stadium. The Five Stripes have been a powerhouse since they entered the league as an expansion team in 2017. They've qualified for the playoffs every season since they began play, adding an MLS Cup, US Open Cup and a Campeones Cup to their trophy cabinet.
Speedway Soccer: Atlanta have undergone a bit of a roster overhaul this season, losing mainstays like Julian Gressel, Darlington Nagbe and Leandro González Pírez. How have Atlanta replaced them, and do you think those guys will have adapted to the new squad by the time Saturday roles around?
Sydney Hunte: It’s funny you mention that as 2 players expected to make an impact on the lineup won’t be available on Saturday: Manuel Castro, on loan from Estudiantes, and Matheus Rossetto, signed from Athletico Paranaense in Brazil, as the duo have been tied up with getting their work visas secured. That’s been an area of frustration for both fans and Atlanta coach Frank de Boer as surely he’d have expected this to all be wrapped up by now. Hopefully for Atlanta fans, it’s sooner rather than later that we see those 2 available to play. (We got some good news as it pertains to Castro as his visa was approved; he’ll join the club on Monday.)
The thing about replacing Gressel and Nagbe is if you can truly replace a pair that was such a big part of the club during their respective tenures here: Gressel, of course, who came on in 2017 after being picked in that year’s SuperDraft, and Nagbe, whose box-to-box skills and overall abilities leave a big hole in the lineup. I think most, if not all, fans feel that Nagbe can’t be replaced like-for-like, but Rossetto, as well as Emerson Hyndman—signed to a permanent deal after a loan spell from Bournemouth last season—are expected to aid in the midfield to some extent.
As for a Gressel replacement, you’d like to think that Brooks Lennon can fill that slot on the right side that Gressel thrived in during his 3 years in Atlanta, but we might see some of Castro there (who may be more of a Tito Villalba replacement more than anything else). Another player to mention is Jake Mulraney, who was on the left wing during Atlanta’s win against Motagua on Tuesday and looked pretty good. Anton Walkes, a member of the 2017 squad on loan from Spurs, is back in the fold as a permanent signing and provides some versatility as to where on the field he can play.
The Leandro Gonzalez Perez replacement was probably a little more straight forward: Atlanta looked to Liga MX to sign Fernando Meza, who has been pretty strong in the limited number of times I’ve been able to see him. He should form a strong center back pairing with a MLS Best XI pick in Miles Robinson (who is injured and won’t play on Saturday).
SS: Atlanta started their season early, beating Motagua in the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16. In the second leg especially, their attack seemed to be on a roll, but it was a very physical match. How do you think Atlanta will recover from two hard fought legs with a short turnaround time?
SH: I think it will actually help them, in a sense, because they’ll be more “match-ready”, so to speak. With the season just 2 games old, I don’t think you’ll see any major effects for Atlanta, to be honest. The one concern I have is if this match takes the same tenor as its MLS opener last year against D.C. United appeared: Atlanta looked bereft of ideas, slow-footed in attack and ultimately paid the piper with a loss. My hope is that it’s able to build off of Tuesday night’s game; the attack needs to build on what it did against Motagua because, if that turns out to be the norm for the Five Stripes in 2020, this will be a tough club to beat.
One note relates to previously injured players: we won’t see Miles Robinson as he’s dealing with a niggling injury, while George Bello, though he trained with the team on Monday before the match, didn’t play on Tuesday and will be with Atlanta’s USL side playing in a friendly this weekend.
SS: Atlanta's attack has been consistently one of the best in the league since they debuted. Obviously, we haven't actually seen this Nashville side play, but on paper they look to be a pretty strong defensive side. How do you see Atlanta faring against a defense that will stay compact and look to limit space in the final third more than Motagua did?
SH: That’s the question for Atlanta: can it create space where none may be available? That may force things to the outside and put pressure on whoever de Boer selects to start at the wingbacks sports (whether it’s a Mulroney-Lennon left/right pairing that we saw on Tuesday or something else). If that’s the case, and those two aren’t able to pick out their spots within the box, then it could make things much more difficult for Atlanta.
If Nashville decide to press, that’s where it could gain an advantage as this has been an Atlanta side that has historically seen little success breaking a press and successfully attacking through a bunkering defense—most notably when it’s faced New York Red Bulls in the past. We’ll certainly see what Gary Smith has up his sleeve heading into Saturday, though.
All that said, if Atlanta are able to strike quickly, get things flowing on attack and take what should be a vocal Nashville SC crowd out of the match, then it should ride out of town with 3 points.