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Sporting KC v Atlanta United: Preview, Predictions, Starting XI and more

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It doesn’t feel like two of the four best teams from 2019 are about to meet. This could be the game that turns it around for one of these squads.

MLS: Sporting KC at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Sporting KC v Atlanta United (#SKCvATL)

When: Sunday, May 5, 2019 at 8:00 PM CT

Where: Children’s Mercy Park

How to Watch/Stream: FS1 | Fox Deportes | Not ESPN+ (though go subscribe anyways)
How to Listen: Sports Radio 810 WHB | ESPN Deportes KC 1480 AM

Atlanta United and Sporting Kansas City enter Sunday’s match in a weird spot. Both teams are below the red line (which is easier to be above than ever with 14[!] of 24 teams getting into the playoffs). Sporting KC sit in eighth in the West with 10 points through eight games (2-2-4). Atlanta sit in tenth place in the East with eight points through seven games (2-3-2).

For those that say ‘it’s too early in the season,’ the points count the same either way. Sure teams have come from poor starts and recovered just fine in the long MLS season, but Sporting are a team that usually get off to a hot start and fade at some point. If they fade (more) this year, it will be disastrous.

There are different things ailing each squad. The Blue Testament broke down what’s wrong with Sporting KC and their defense but Atlanta is a different puzzle. It’s clear the loss of Miguel Almiron shows that he was probably always the MVP over the MLS single season goal scoring leader Josef Martinez. One thing that’s still true of Atlanta is that they have the ability to be a counter-attacking team and that’s the biggest hole in SKC’s defense (more on that in a bit).

Interesting Stats

There isn’t a lot of history between Atlanta and KC because they’ve only met twice since they are in separate conferences. Sporting KC have never lost to Atlanta and in fact they were the first club to defeat Atlanta at Mercedes Benz Stadium in May of 2018. Because they’ve only played in KC once against one another, no team has won since that game ended in a draw.

One fun 2019 fact is that Sporting Kansas City have more goals in a single game (seven against the Montreal Impact) than Atlanta United have all year (just five). That said, New England had only scored six times heading into last week and they added four goals in a single game.

What’s Changed in Atlanta in 2019?

Two outgoing moves stand above all others. Miguel Almiron went to the Premier League with Newcastle United for a record fee. And head coach Tata Martinez left to coach the Mexican National team. Both moves have left Atlanta reeling.

Atlanta also traded away their starting left back Greg Garza (to FC Cincinnati) and their replacements (Bello and Ambrose) are injured. One of their additions, Brek Shea, is their primary left back, but his defensive skills are lacking and should leave Johnny Russell room to attack.

As far as additions, two stand out. Pity Martinez (transferred from River Plate) came in for a reported $15 million but he’s failed to adequately replace Almiron. And new head coach Frank de Boer has been a bit disappointing with an impossible bar to live up to after replacing Tata. de Boer could be his own worst enemy choosing to play a style that doesn’t fit the talent on his roster.

Injuries

Sporting KC

OUT - Jimmy Medranda (knee surgery), Erik Hurtado (knee surgery), Jaylin Lindsey (torn meniscus), Rodney Wallace (hip injury), Roger Espinoza (PCL), Matt Besler (hamstring strain), Gerso Fernandes (broken wrist)

QUESTIONABLE - Ilie Sanchez (calf injury), Andreu Fontas (calf injury) apparently most of the team

*The official injury report just confirmed what Thad reported earlier in the week.

Atlanta

OUT - George Bello (groin injury), Kevin Kratz (calf injury), Mikey Ambrose (right meniscus injury), Brandon Vazquez (knee injury)

QUESTIONABLE - None

Suspensions

Sporting KC - None

Atlanta - None

International Call-Ups

Sporting KC - Gianluca Busio and Tyler Freeman (United States U-17s)

Atlanta - None

Stats

Sporting KC

GOALS - Krisztian Nemeth (6), Johnny Russell, Felipe Gutierrez (4), Gianluca Busio (3) Ilie Sanchez (1)

ASSISTS - Johnny Russell (3), Roger Espinoza, Gerso Fernandes, Graham Zusi (2), Felipe Gutierrez, Ilie Sanchez, Krisztian Nemeth, Kelyn Rowe (1)

Atlanta

GOALS - Ezequiel Barco (3), Josef Martinez (2), Julian Gressel (1)

ASSISTS - Hector Villalba, Gressel (2), Jeff Larentowicz, Darlington Nagbe (1)

Starting XI Predictions

With the injuries stacking up and reports that as few as six players were healthy earlier in the week, it’s very unclear who is and isn’t available Sunday. That said, let’s take a stab in the dark.

With Gerso out with wrist surgery, Daniel Salloi seems like the prime candidate to replace him on the left wing. He was the 2018 SKC Golden Boot winner and he’s barely got on the pitch in 2019 (83 minutes in five appearances). Salloi is likely to be joined by Nemeth and Russell up front.

The midfield will shuffle again this week. Last week, Ilie wasn’t able to start (ending his 51 straight MLS starts streak) with a calf injury which forced Felipe Gutierrez to play his defensive midfielder spot. Ilie came on at halftime and pushed Gutierrez forward. It’s not that Felipe played poor in the first half, but because he wasn’t playing his primary role and Espinoza was out hurt, there was no one in the midfield doing the dirty work that Peter Vermes’ system requires.

Another change coming in the midfield is Gianluca Busio not being available as he’s away with teammate Tyler Freeman with the United States U-17s for the CONCACAF Championship. Assuming Ilie can start, Felipe resumes his role and that really just leaves Kelyn Rowe and Yohan Croizet who are more qualified to play the last midfield spot. I expect Rowe to start.

If Ilie can’t go, instead of dropping Gutierrez back, I’d start Wan Kuzain at Ilie’s spot and allow Gutierrez to play further up the field and disrupt the midfield while Rowe handles the attacking role. Though I could see it being Gutierrez, Rowe and Croizet if Ilie can’t go.

In defense your guess is as good as mine. Seth Sinovic should really get a start with Croizet needed as the only midfield and attacking depth on the whole team who is healthy (we think). Also, Sinovic is the better defender and against a stunted but still potent Atlanta attack, defense will be needed.

One assumes Graham Zusi will play right back but there is a real case that Nicolas Hasler should get another chance. Zusi has been poor in defense and he has the ability to play in the midfield or at forward if he’s needed. If Croizet plays left back, Hasler makes sense as a defensive option at right back.

At center back, assuming they are healthy, it seems obvious Andreu Fontas and Botond Barath should start. They started together against FC Cincinnati and only a PK led to a goal being allowed. Abdul Rwatubyaye made all the wrong plays last week in his first start and he could use more seasoning (maybe a Monday night start with the Swope Park Rangers). Botond played bad against the San Jose Earthquakes, but so did basically the whole team. The whole team wasn’t bad against the New England Revolution, but Abdul was. He has promise, he just needs time and I think he should get it with SPR and not SKC right now.

Rest of the 18: Zendejas, Rwatubyaye, Hasler, Croizet, Zelalem, Kuzain, Smith

If there aren’t enough healthy bodies to fill out a full 18 players and if there are less than 14 field players available it’s possible that a Swope Park Ranger like Felipe Hernandez or Wilson Harris could get called up to the first team.

Fan Starting XI

The fan vote is exactly the same as my lineup above. The results are a bit skewed because Busio and Gerso were in the poll at the beginning of the week despite their lack of availability. Here are the players who received the most votes but not enough to start (we’ve removed ineligible players): Croizet [LB] (28.2%), Abdul (26.9%), Hasler (26.9%), Croizet [mid] (16.7%), Croizet [wing] (5.1%) and Smith (5.1%).

Prediction

I’ve (incorrectly) predicted two straight victories against poor teams. Atlanta are weirdly a poor team coming off an MLS Cup win (at least as far as results). I suspect they aren’t as bad as their record shows. And the way they often played in the past was a counter-attacking style which would be perfect to beat KC who are susceptible to being countered.

But under de Boer they actually are first in all of MLS in possession with 61.9% (compared to SKC who are 2nd with 58.4%). It’s clearly not working for Atlanta to possess the ball. If they counter-attack more (which should be an option with SKC also trying to hold the ball) it’s actually probably a good thing for Atlanta with their talent and speed.

If Gerso was healthy, it might actually be worth it to let Atlanta possess the ball since they aren’t effective in possession and for SKC to be the countering team with long balls from Fontas and Ilie to Gerso. But alas, he’s out. This game is likely to play out very weird.

If Sporting can hold the ball, their build-up play has the potential to be as good as it always is (SKC are 3rd in MLS in goals per 90 at 2.38). If they give up the ball and don’t keep enough defenders back, it could get very ugly very quickly. Assuming Sporting have enough healthy players, they should win. But it’s very likely they won’t be healthy enough.

2-2 Draw

What do you think? Predictions in the chat for both lineups and results are welcome. We can’t quite tell who you voted for in our other poll, so let us know why we are wrong.

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