Hector Villalba

Juan Blas / Atlanta United

Remain Calm, All is Well: An Atlanta-Houston Preview

Jarrett Smith
March 01, 2018 - 4:16 pm

With the preseason in the rearview mirror, Atlanta United has the season on the horizon and the first stop is in Houston.

The Five Stripes will attempt to follow up one of the greatest expansion seasons ever with a match against one of the biggest turnarounds MLS has ever seen. Houston went from a mess in 2016 (7-14-13) to a team that blew away Portland in the Western Conference Semifinals in 2017 before taking all four wheels off of its own flaming bus on the way to a 5-0 aggregate loss to Seattle in the Western Conference Finals.

As far as Atlanta is concerned, the last few days have been trying to say the least.

Ezequiel Barco will miss four to six weeks and there are roughly 2,000 lineup combinations that people have come up with and many of them involve a bullhorn and the words Andrew Carleton. How Atlanta puts the team together for Saturday is anyone’s guess right now, and there are still concerns that Tito Villalba might not be 100 percent and/or has not knocked off all of the rust after missing most of the preseason. Still, Darlington Nagbe and Franco Escobar make this team deadlier on the attack and they survived a large chunk of last year without a star, so what’s a few more weeks, right?  

If you are searching for a spot of sunshine, maybe you can find one in the fact that last year they had to fill a hole on the wing with unproven commodities like Julian Gressel and Brandon Vazquez. Those two have proven themselves at this point and one of them may very likely get the nod this weekend. Where Carleton lands in all of this remains to be seen, but he will get moments during Barco’s down time and it has the chance to be a great barometer of his game.

As for Saturday, Atlanta has a task that no one enjoyed in 2017, and that is going into BBVA Compass Stadium to battle Houston. The Dynamo were 12-1-4 at home last season and only a horrific road record (1-9-7) kept them from climbing higher than fourth in the West. Whether or not that carries over to this year remains to be seen, but this is still a club that can make a fair amount of noise.

First off, let us recognize that Wilmer Cabrera brought this club back from the dead after a dreadful 2016 and made them very fun to watch. They are lethal up top and even though Cubo Torres and Alex are gone; Romell Quioto, Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas are fast and if they find space, they can provide goals up top. Rookie, and former teammate of Julian Gressel, Mac Steeves might be another name to watch. The big target forward is a handful and bagged three goals in the preseason.

Houston, We May Have a Problem (or two)

When it comes to creating, Houston will be without young midfielder Tomas Martinez after he picked up a red card in the last leg of the playoffs against Seattle in 2017. Veteran Boniek Garcia may see the main playmaker role instead and that is potentially a lovely bullet that Atlanta is dodging. There were concerns that Garcia might see a suspension after a flying elbow at the end of the preseason, but that is highly unlikely. Garcia’s biggest task might not be playmaking, but at times dueling with Atlanta’s defensive midfield and maintaining possession against a team that would love nothing more than to see him make a lazy pass that triggers a counter. That being said, Houston will still work hard to force turnovers high up the field and/or launch deep balls over the top and chasing them.

Also, Quioto dealt with an illness in the preseason and if they do not deem him 100 percent fit, homegrown talent Memo Rodriguez or Arturo Alvarez could get the call or at least be on the bench ready to step up.

It’s an older back line sir, but it checks out

Houston’s back line did a solid job last year giving up only 45 goals which was middle-of-the-road for playoff teams (seriously, of the 12 playoff teams, they were sixth in goals allowed.) The tall task is asking that line to do it again, but this time a year older. DaMarcus Beasley will outlast us all and you should just accept that. I still like to imagine he was grumpy when a 16-year-old Andrew Carleton tried to drag race him in the 88th minute of last year’s affair.

Joking aside, here are the ages of the possible starting back line: Beasley (35) Kevin Garcia (27) Adolfo Machado (33) Philippe Senderos (33).

That is not necessarily ideal, and while there is some young talent behind them, that talent will most likely have to go through some growing pains. Cabrera mixing and matching his line through the whole season will be key to preserving older legs and breaking in new ones while not breaking them in a bad way.

So, what are we thinking?

I will not always do predictions (because they are often so very wrong anyway) but that said…

FINAL: 2-2 Atlanta in a game that puts your heart in your throat a few times if you are an Atlanta fan because there is no such thing as conditioning for the stress that this city gives you.

It is a game of two teams that like to counter in different ways, but Atlanta is able to settle the game down and pin Houston back while Darlington Nagbe puts in a performance that reminds people why he was brought in.

Houston is dangerous and even more so at home. That said, despite the injury to Barco and rust on a few players, Atlanta could not pick a better time to go to Houston. It will not be the concrete oven that it is during the summer, the pitch should be in fantastic shape and Houston’s best playmaker (probably) is out. Atlanta walks away with a point, but it is not one you want to have to play again once Houston is at full power.