1) Frank de Boer has seemed to settle in as manager, and finally his style seems to be working. What happened between then and now?
I think that it took a while for the team to really embrace the style of play that de Boer favors, which is a more defensive, possession-based style. After all, this was a group that scored 70 goals in each of its first two seasons, and some of that attacking prowess was always set to change in some form or fashion when Tata Martino left to coach Mexico. But after a slow start they’ve got on well and have taken on a vastly different identity that you didn’t see in 2017 and 2018. I think the main part of it is that you’re seeing players get more comfortable in roles that perhaps they weren’t as used to playing before; for example, center back Michael Parkhurst has been forced to play left back with the team thin at that spot in the roster due to injury and has done a serviceable job. After stepping in during the playoffs last year, Miles Robinson has filled Parkhurst’s former spot in the middle of the defense beside Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and has barely put a foot wrong, quickly developing into one of the top CBs in the league.
It may not be pretty soccer, and by no means is it perfect - as its recent two-match losing streak showed - but the results are starting to come easier than they did early on. Once those offensive connections start to take hold (mainly looking at Pity Martinez here), if the defense holds up its end of the bargain, this will be a tough group to beat.
2) Hector Villaba is still listed as being out with a Knee injury, what does his loss mean to the squad and how are they compensating without him?
Villalba’s absence means that Dion Pereira has been called upon to become more involved. Pereira was signed to the club from Watford and spent some time in USL with ATL UTD 2 before a few appearances with the senior team led to his first two starts against RSL last Friday and Minnesota on Wednesday. While he was a little shaky at Real Salt Lake, he really grew into the match on Wednesday as he got the call to start on the left wing. I expect him to get the start once more on Saturday, while we may see Justin Meram get some involvement as well.
Looking past the break, the hope is that VIllalba’s injury isn’t too serious and that he’ll be ready to go for Atlanta come June 26 since he won’t be at the Copa America for Paraguay this year.
3) What areas can the Fire exploit to get a result on Saturday? What are Atlanta going to try to do tactically?
As I alluded to earlier, if Atlanta can get itself a goal or two and put the Fire behind, it can really lean on possession and look to see the match out that way. From an offensive standpoint, you’ll see a lot of play along the outside with Escobar getting heavily involved in the attack from his RWB position. I’d also look for Josef Martinez to come back toward the middle of the pitch from his usual striker spot and taking on more of a playmaker role - but that doesn’t mean he won’t be lethal in the attack if given the opportunity.
Again, this is not the Atlanta of 2017 and 2018: you’re not going to see a lot of goals in open play or on the counter like you did in recent years. I think that Veljko Paunovic would do well to have plenty of defenders in the box to cut off that plan of attack for Atlanta as it’s not been as crisp on chances this season.