NASL Preview: Atlanta Silverbacks Host Minnesota United FC

Christian Ramirez as he breaks down the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers in the first half of the NASL season (Photo Minnesota United FC)

Christian Ramirez as he breaks down the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers in the first half of the NASL season (Photo Minnesota United FC)

Minnesota United FC at Atlanta Silverbacks, Saturday, July 26, 7:30 EST

Over the first half of the 2014 season, it was forward Christian Ramirez who served as the offensive linchpin for Minnesota United FC. Ramirez’s 5 goals and 3 assists over the opening 9 matches was a superb output and, perhaps, the most significant contributing factor to Minnesota United winning the first half title thus securing a spot in the four team playoffs at season’s end. With the league’s month long break over the World Cup, there were nominal concerns that Minnesota would come back for the 18 game second half of the season complacent, much in the same way that the Atlanta Silverbacks did last year. However, it’s becoming quite clear that Minnesota isn’t a team that holds back. With two cleansheets in league play to open the second half of the season and four goals scored, Minnesota are showing no signs of letting off the gas.

Minnesota will be without Justin Davis, who will serve a match suspension for the red card he received in last week’s match against the Carolina Railhawks. His absence will be felt given that the leftback has been a constant presence on the pitch and a driving force in all areas of the team’s success. I would imagine that backup Tyler Polak might see action, but just as likely would be centerback Cristiano Dias moving out left leaving Tiago Calvano to partner with Aaron Pitchkolan. Minnesota has the luxury of quality players who are mutable in their positioning. Pitchkolan is able to move seamlessly from central midfield to a deeper defensive midfield role to that of a more than competent centerback. Manager Manny Lagos has two central midfielders who can easily step into Pitchkolan’s role alongside midfield partner Juliano Vicentini with Michael Reed (who acquitted himself quite well in last weekend’s friendly against the EPL’s Swansea City) and Floyd Franks. I doubt that Minnesota’s standard formation, one that moves fluidly from a 4-1-4-1 to a 4-5-1 to a 4-3-3, will be much altered.

Daniel Mendes, Calvano,  and Aaron Pitchkolan celebrate after Mendes' goal against Carolina last week (Photo from Minnesota United FC)

Daniel Mendes, Calvano,  and Aaron Pitchkolan celebrate after Mendes' goal against Carolina last week (Photo from Minnesota United FC)

Look for Daniel Mendes to continue to make an impact. The winger is on a streak having scored in each of the first two matches of the second half of the season put opposite the dynamo that is Miguel Ibarra and Minnesota have a 14 goals scored attacking third. This will certainly harry Atlanta, a team that sits near the bottom of the league with goals surrendered.

Atlanta isn't a team going through hardtimes, but they are certainly underperforming. Currently, the Silverbacks need three points to maintain their competitiveness in the overall league table and are a firm six points behind Fall season leaders San Antonio Scorpions. Even though the team is coming off a win, they now face the rest of the season with a new manager, Jason Smith.

Atlanta Silverbacks new head coach Jason Smith ahead of his first match at the helm (Photo @AtlSilverbacks)

Atlanta Silverbacks new head coach Jason Smith ahead of his first match at the helm (Photo @AtlSilverbacks)

Former manager Eric Wynalda, who is still the team's technical director, stepped down last week. The team's experiment with what could be called coaching-by-committee or remote-management looks to be over with the conclusion be a resounding shrug of the shoulders. It's good that Wynalda as stayed on with the organization as his eye for talent is superb. Every player that Wynalda has shepherded from the amateur ranks into the professional have demonstrated that they deserved the opportunity.

It will be interesting to see how Atlanta changes under Smith. The team has been lackluster in attack and perhaps the most foul prone team in the league (third with 154 fouls committed and first with 27 yellow cards). Discipline is needed in Atlanta, a discipline that might allow forward Deon McCaulay to finally get in form and midfielders Kwadwo Poku and Pablo Cruz to achieve a consistency that would make them top players. What is most needed is for this Atlanta team to find a way to win (or even score) that isn't due solely to forward Jaime Chavez, who had a brilliant first half that was only eclipsed by Ramirez's play.

Atlanta will be looking to get revenge for the last time they hosted Minnesota, the Silverbacks lost 2-1 in front of 5,000 fans. The onus will be on Atlanta, so expect Minnesota to continue to play with freedom and confidence. 

The match will be available to watch through the NASL's homepage