The LA Galaxy have been paying attention to Atlanta United.
The Eastern Conference newcomers (joining the league in 2017) have had their sights on greatness since their inaugural season, and that focus has caught the attention of the entire league. And with the offseason acquisition of a 19-year-old Ezequiel Barco – worth an estimated $15-million – United are keen on proving they’re not here for second place when they play the Galaxy at StubHub Center on Saturday night in Carson (7:30 PM, SpectrumSN, Spectrum Deportes).
“We started looking forward to them on Sunday,” LA Galaxy goalkeeper David Bingham told CoG at training. “And we’ve been preparing for them, and we’ll be ready to rock on Saturday.”
The Galaxy (3-2-1) are coming off a difficult 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire. A game that saw Zlatan Ibrahimovic score the games only goal – his third goal in three games – and saw the Galaxy’s defense get a shutout for the second time this year.
It was a game noted more for the weather than the scoreline as 30 mph winds ripped across the field for the entirety of the game. But last weekend’s victory was also a turning point for the Galaxy who were able to start midfielders Romain Alessandrini, Jonathan dos Santos, and Sebastian Lletget for the first time. With all three having sustained injuries at some point over the last year.
On the other side of the country, United (4-1-1) have been picking up momentum at a dizzying pace. Having lost their season-opener in a 4-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo, they’ve now gone unbeaten in five games and recently had their four-game winning streak snapped by a 2-2 draw to New York City FC – the league’s top team.
United are coached by former Argentinean National Team coach, Gerardo “Tata” Martino and lead by young superstars Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron. Tata has his club in second place in the Eastern Conference with 13 points and has orchestrated strong offensive attacks since the team began playing. That includes a 4-0 win over the Galaxy on September 20 with goals from Martinez, Almiron, and two from Yamil Rodrigo Asad (who now plays for DC United), and a 5-0 victory over Los Angele Football Club two weeks ago.
The United offense sits second in the league having scored 15 goals with Martinez tied for the league lead in goals (5) with Sporting KC’s Felipe Guitierrez.
Almiron, not to be outdone, leads the league in shots with 33 and has three goals and four assists in 2018. Revealing his true ability as a playmaker and as an attacking player who rarely loses the ball.
That doesn’t even include Barco who joined United in the offseason from Argentina’s Club Atlético Independiente for the record sum mentioned above. Barco saw his first 20 minutes of the season after being sidelined since the preseason with a quad injury.
“Atlanta just has really good team speed,” Galaxy head coach Sigi Schmid said. “Josef Martinez, you’ve got (Miguel) Almiron who’s probably one of the fastest if not the fastest player in the league. Then you have (Hector) Villalba; when he plays he’s got some pace as well.
“They definitely look to get at you on the counter and hopefully create opportunities in that manner.”
And that pace will be something that should bother the Galaxy.
With no one on the Galaxy’s backline known for their blinding recovery speed, the Galaxy will be wiery of the same counterattacks that have burned them many times over the past year.
The offseason addition of Perry Kitchen provides some much-needed backbone to a team spine that was all too accommodating to a counterattacking style. But Kitchen isn’t speedy, and neither are the Galaxy’s two outside backs – Rolf Feltscher and Ashley Cole. With Schmid in a possible 4-4-2 formation, the home team will need to be patient with getting forward unless they want to get beaten by lightning-fast decisions United makes when winning the ball from a turnover.
The Galaxy will also be trying to work Giovani dos Santos back into the lineup at some point during the match as well. After suffering a hamstring injury in the first half of the Galaxy’s 2-0 loss to NYCFC earlier this season, Giovani dos Santos seems ready to rejoin a much different Galaxy then when he left.
The club will also continue its work on involving offseason signing Ola Kamara into the offense. With Kamara signing a three-year contract extension and coming close to scoring on multiple occasions against the Fire, the entire organization is hoping he’ll start to find the back of the net on a regular clip if only to make Ibrahimovic’s clear presence all that more dominating.
Ibrahimovic and the entire starting lineup from the win over the Fire are expected to reprise their roles. Which raises a difficult question: where should Giovani dos Santos play on the field? With a midfield full of outstanding players, it may be Sebastian Lletget who eventually makes way for Giovani dos Santos. But for now, expect the Galaxy to find some late-game minutes for the Mexican international where he’ll be trying to impress for the World Cup.
Make no doubt about it, the Galaxy are focused on the visitors. And they should be. The new kids in town are making noise and threatening to be early favorites for an MLS Cup all while the five-time-MLS-Cup champs are still searching for a team identity.
An identity, one assumes that includes playing the best and beating the best. And for now at least, United seem to be one of the best in the MLS.
Larry Morgan contributed to this report.