Patching the Atlanta United backline

Jarrett Smith
March 06, 2018 - 2:28 pm
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez

© Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

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I bet the Empire never had these problems.

Any time someone would go down they would just call up another clone and slide them into place and usher them into battle only to get slaughtered. Rinse and repeat.

Unfortunately, soccer is not that simple and now Atlanta United may have to piece together a lineup for Sunday afternoon when their personal boogeyman, D.C. United come to visit.

Leandro Gonzalez Pirez had a nightmare of a game in Houston and then valiantly threw himself in the way of the 3:55 Elis Express that was looking to get free down the right. LGP picked up what will probably be one of many yellows in 2018 but he also took a shot to the hip and he is still listed as day-to-day. Without him, Atlanta’s backline is still a mystery and a different mystery than the one we saw in Houston.

LGP is a physical presence and a skilled dribbler that can occasionally go on a walkabout with the ball at his feet. The downside to this is that he can get extremely high up the field at times and scare everyone about the idea of a counter, the upside is that he can deliver some devastating passes when he does this and unlock a defense. If he is out for Sunday afternoon, it might be as simple as plugging Jeff Larentowicz into his spot and carrying on. Atlanta may examine shifting things around.

Larentowicz has been a wonderful pickup for Atlanta from the moment he arrived, but he and Michael Parkhurst are not the physical weapons that LGP can be and have both lost a step over time. Parkhurst especially makes his living seeing the game a few steps ahead and being in the right place at the right time. The staff may balk at putting both on the backline with a fast and physical striker like Darren Mattocks waiting to run around for 90 minutes. The question now becomes: What do you do?

Atlanta could slide Franco Escobar inside and partner him up with a (hopefully) fit Michael Parkhurst for Sunday. Escobar has experience in the position and it would ultimately free up Larentowicz to push back up to the defensive midfield where Atlanta wants him to be anyway.

There is also the riskier option of calling on second-year defender Miles Robinson. Robinson has yet to have things click for him at the MLS level and his appearances have been marred with questionable passing and shaky moments. That said, he has every physical tool you could ask for and even if he does not start I would not be shocked to see him on the bench Sunday. At some point he will have to sink or swim, but I predict we will see him in the pool that is Atlanta United 2 before throwing him in the ocean that is MLS.

If Escobar is that guy to slide inside, the right back spot becomes an interesting debate. The easiest answer is Sal Zizzo, who came to Atlanta as a right back and despite a few less-than-brilliant moments in the preseason, he settled down and was better defensively as time went on. Zizzo played like what he is: a backup right back that can step in and hold the line, though not necessarily a guy you want to hand the keys to for the full season.

Should things get weird at right back, Andrew Wheeler Omiunu would be an interesting option. We saw him there against Charleston and he put in a Man of the Match performance as a holding midfielder and right back against the USL side. It would be irresponsible to ignore the difference between a home opener in the league and a friendly against a USL club, but Martino’s willingness to slide him to right back may suggest he has spent some time there in training and could be trusted a short-term fix. That said, he and Robinson may both be ticketed to Gwinnett where he can build on the momentum he built in the preseason. The third-round pick came back to Atlanta in 2018 because they believed in what he could become, and so far, he has rewarded that faith with a stellar performance. I am not convinced he will see his encore on Sunday afternoon but stranger things have happened.

Of course, all of this could be for nothing if we see Larentowicz and Parkhurst along the backline. There are a number of combinations that Atlanta could use and people could argue about them until the heat death of the Universe. What they will not argue about is that Atlanta needs a bounce-back game, and a solid outing from the back four will go a long way to making sure that happens.