After a week off from league play in the midst of international World Cup Qualifiers, the Seattle Sounders return to CenturyLink Field for their first ever regular season matchup against expansion side Atlanta United FC.
The Sounders are looking to build off their first win of the season, which came at home two weeks ago against the New York Red Bulls.
After starting the season off with a loss, Atlanta has won their last two matches by four or more goals.
Both teams potentially will take the field without their preferred starting lineups, with injuries and international fatigue setting in.
This is no cookie-cutter expansion side the Sounders will face on Friday night. Seattle needs to be in top form both offensively and defensively if they expect to come away with a win.
Here are the Sounders three keys to coming away with three points:
1. Keep shape along the back four
Atlanta appears to be no expansion team scrub when it comes to scoring goals. The MLS newcomers have 11 goals in just three games so far this season.
Despite missing a key attacker in Josef Martinez, who leads the league with five goals in 2017, Atlanta plays a style of possession-based attack that could work no matter who features up top.
Atlanta loves to press their outside backs high up the field through overlaps. With USMNT defended Greg Garza on the left and former Sounder Tyrone Mears on the right, opponents are forced to spread themselves out to cover from both sides.
That opens up guys like Martinez and Atlanta’s young designated player Miguel Almiron to do damage working up the middle. Julian Gressel, who plays a role similar to that of Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, also has shown well over the first three games in attacking up the spine.
The Sounders lineup Friday night is still up in the air, and defensively, Seattle could be without center back Roman Torres and right back Oneil Fisher. If that is the case, expect Gustav Svennson to slide out to right back and Tony Alfaro to partner with Chad Marshall in the middle.
While both Roldan and Osvaldo Alonso should be able to assist in containing the attack up the middle, Marshall and Alfaro (or Svensson) are going be integral in adapting to what Atlanta does going forward.
2. Allow Lodeiro and Ozzie to float
When the Sounders control the midfield, they’re one of the most lethal teams in MLS.
Not only because it allows them to exposed defenses while in possession, but also it keeps teams from doing the same to them.
The two headed monster that is Osvaldo Alonso and Nicolas Lodeiro make this possible.
While Seattle plays a 4-2-3-1 with Lodeiro wide right, and Alonso sitting just underneath at defensive mid, both have made a name for themselves for always seemingly being on top of the ball.
Lodeiro slides into the middle as the game progresses, picking out overlaps to the outside, but also linking up with Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris, and even at times Harry Shipp on the left.
Similarly, Alonso also slides further to the interior, giving him the best chances to snuff out attacks by opponents on both sides of the field. He also provides a drop back option when Seattle needs to reset and work the ball forward out of the defense.
Controlling both ways against Atlanta will be key.
Atlanta has averaged almost 63 percent possession in their three games so far this season, and its paid off. They have a +8 goal differential, allowing just three goals to the 11 they’ve scored.
But Lodeiro and Alonso, if in sync and free to move about the midfield, can change that.
3. Find a way to use Clint Dempsey
Up until a few months ago, the jury was still out on if Clint Dempsey would ever return to his former glory on the soccer pitch.
Well, he’s back folks…
Dempsey scored four goals in two US men’s national team games this past week, including a hat trick against Honduras, to move within one of Landon Donovan’s all-time USMNT scoring record.
The Sounders designated player has two goals in MLS play, and has started off the season beyond what Seattle expected.
Its more than likely he’s not going to start on Friday, but getting Dempsey minutes late in the game will benefit the Sounders beyond just the Atlanta game.
Dempsey has shown over his career that once in a scoring streak, there are few defenders who can stop him. Should the USMNT attacker get a chance to continue his goal scoring burst, that success could carry over into the coming weeks.
Head coach Brian Schmetzer said on Thursday during training that Dempsey, along with the other national players who returned “are available for selection for tomorrow.”
Hopefully, Dempsey gets a solid 30 minutes against Atlanta, and the goal-scoring streak continues.