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RSL vs. Atlanta United tactical preview: Welcoming the newcomers to the RioT

RSL hope to start a winning tradition against the expansion side, but Atlanta will be no walk in the park.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake remain perfect under Mike Petke after their 2-1 victory over their Rocky Mountain rivals, the Colorado Rapids, last week. This week, the Claret-and-Cobalt will host Atlanta United who currently have the most explosive offense in the Eastern Conference. As this is the clubs’ first meeting, RSL will look to welcome Atlanta to the RioT by handing them their third loss of the season.

Speed an precision down the flanks

Attacking plays down the touchline are essential to many organizations in Major League Soccer, but none more so than Atlanta United.

Atlanta favors wing-play more than any other squad in the league, as just under 19 percent of their attacks come through the center of the pitch. It is not enough that Atlanta employs some of the most dangerous wingers in the league, but the team also favors attacking midfielders that are as comfortable with drifting out wide as they are centrally.

Atlanta loves to play with width and overload opposing fullbacks with aggressive attitudes, but this comes with a price. For as much as Atlanta’s winger’s are aggressive, it is no wonder why they are near the top of the league in fouls conceded in dangerous areas. While Atlanta’s attackers will get back and defender, their aggressive nature usually betrays them in their own defensive third.

What to watch

RSL is likely to earn a fair amount of set-pieces near the opposition goal because of Atlanta United’s aggressive tendencies. Whomever takes these opportunities, likely Albert Rusnak, will need capitalize and punish the visitors.

To make matters worse for Atlanta, but significantly better for the home-side, Atlanta is one of the worst set-piece defending squads in MLS. While most of their players are technically skilled and nibble on their feet, they lack the physically and height required to defend accurate set-piece opportunities.

Atlanta scores three goals for every goal they concede in open play, so set-piece chances could be pivotal for the Claret-and-Cobalt as they look to earn their third straight win of the season.

Individual errors and open space in the defensive third

It’s almost obligatory in this preview about a Gerardo “Tata” Martino side to reference the defensive similarities with RSL under Petke. Both gaffers prefer thier sides to press high up the pitch.

However, while this policy has help revitalize a capsizing Claret-and-Cobalt squad, the same policy has proved problematic at time for Martino’s Atlanta.

Michael Parkhurst is a battering ram defender who is at his best when the ball is in front of him but, when space is left behind him, his lack of pace can be exploited. At 33, the limited pace he once had is deserting him, making the Atlanta back-line vulnerable. When Parkhurt was at his best he tidied up play behind a quick, intelligent partner, but this has not been enough to correct an entire back-line that has been called into question at times.

In the 2-2 draw at Toronto, in particular, Atlanta’s pressing was poor in that turn-overs left a high line vulnerable to balls played in behind against an opponent that had time to play with calculation and accuracy.

Take the chance Sebastian Giovinco volleyed over the crossbar in the fifth minute. This came about because Leandro González Pirez was pulled out of position as a result of Giovinco and Armando Cooper closing down space around González Pirez. That in turn led to Jeff Larentowicz being exposed against Giovinco and, consequently, Greg Garza leaving acres of space for Víctor Vázquez. Understandably, Larentowicz sat off rather than risk being roasted by Giovinco’s pace, giving the Toronto No 10 time to measure his pass to Vázquez who delivered a great cross across the face of goal to Jozy Altidore.

Toronto once again exposed the Atlanta back-line and leveled the match 14 minutes later when Giovinco buried Altidore's back-heeled assist. Parkhurst was distracted by Cooper which pulled González Pirez centrally, leaving a gap for the Atomic Ant to exploit. Neither González Pirez nor Larentowicz followed Giovinco’s run. Parkhurt was horribly out of possition, and Julian Gressel was caught napping.

Atlanta’s defensive problems are not one element malfunctioning but repeated individual errors. In a more compartmentalized deep-lying defense, the attackers attack and the defenders defend, but with a high line the whole squad has to function as a unit or the slightest flaw will be magnified.

What to watch

Atlanta United has gotten off to a great start for an expansion side, but such an environment makes change difficult. Paradoxically, the young club-culture and lack of much defensive depth will make genuine defensive change harder.

When Michael Parkhurst was transferred to the freshman squad, it was presented as a move for defensive stability, however, spurts of individual errors can leave young netminder Alec Kann vulnerable.

If RSL can keep their wingers pushed up the pitch, and if they pressure the Atlanta defenders, the Claret-and-Cobalt might be able to mimic Toronto and Montreal’s consecutive success against the Atlanta defense.

The Claret-and-Cobalt need to keep the pressure on Atlanta, while they also deal with pressure in return. In all, this match could come down to which squad is less susceptible to individual errors leading to quick counter-attacks.

Keys to the Match

1. Allow Atlanta to be physical – Atlanta United has a propensity to be overly physical. This makes Atlanta’s squad vulnerable to not only conceding set-pieces, but also to receiving match altering disciplinary action (red cards). It is important for RSL’s players to absorb Atlanta’s physicality while also retaining a cool head. Let the visitors see red, not the home side.

2. Take long shots – While Atlanta’s defense pushes far up the pitch when their side is in possession, the entire squad attempts to be compact defensively when in their own third. As such, the midfield-partnership often sits back along the top of the 18-yard box leaving space to shoot beyond that. RSL has previously found success shooting from this range, so get the ball to Brooks Lennon’s feet:

3. Making the RioT a fortress – RSL has already dropped five points at home this season, which could translate to a lot when the final whistle of the season is blown. Petke needs to make it clear that at home RSL needs to get all three points from this point out.

Expected Atlanta United Lineup (4-2-3-1):

GK: Kann

DEF: Mears, Parkhurst, González Pirez, Garza

MID: Carmona, Larentowicz

MID: Villalba, Almiron, Asad

ATT: Jones

Watch RSL take on Atlanta United on Saturday April 22nd at 7:30 pm MDT at Rio Tinto Stadium, on KMYU, or listen to Bill Riley on ESPN 700.