Everything you need to know ahead of the second-annual American Family Insurance Cup.
Alas, the time has come for this most monumental occasion. Two clubs will enter, but only one will emerge triumphant and earn the sacred right to lift this chalice of champions, this goblet of glory, this vessel of victory, this... checks Thesaurus.com for more synonyms of "cup" ... demitasse of dominance?
Alright, enough with the dramatic intro, let's get right to the point. Atlanta United will play the second iteration of the American Family Insurance Cup against Liga MX's Deportivo Toluca on Wednesday, Feb. 15 at 7:30 pm. This will be the Five Stripes' penultimate preseason match before facing newcomers St. Louis City SC in a closed-door friendly on Feb. 18 and then San Jose Earthquakes on Opening Day Feb. 25.
This preseason, Atlanta United's presumed starting XI (excluding Giorgos Giakoumakis, Luis Abram, and Derrick Etienne Jr) have tied all three opponents they have faced. The Five Stripes have scored seven and conceded seven goals. Most of the matches have been played behind closed doors, so it really restricts our ability to analyze exactly what's going on, but we can see that the attack is starting to put pieces together and combine effectively. Keep in mind, Derrick Etienne Jr. and Giakoumakis have yet to play with the team, so those are two variables to look out for (I don't expect either to play on Wednesday).
Now, let's talk about the opposition.
The Diablos Rojos are one of the bigger clubs in Liga MX despite not winning silverware in nearly 14 years. In last fall's Apertura tournament, Toluca finished 6th in the league and reached the Liguilla final where they lost by an 8-2 aggregate score to Pachuca who Atlanta United beat to claim their first extremely important and totally world-renown AMFAM Cup title.
In the ongoing Clausura tournament, Toluca is fifth with nine points and a 2-3-1 record. Their last game was a 3-1 win against Cruz Azul on Sunday. Some of their brighter stars this season are Maximiliano Araujo (3 g, 2 a), Carlos Gonzalez (2 g), and Marcel Ruiz (1 g, 1 a). Last season, their list of top scorers included the likes of Camilo Sanvezzo (9 g, 1 a), Jean Meneses (8 g, 4 a), and Leonardo Fernandez (6 g, 10 a).
From taking a look at some of their matches this season, it seems that Toluca's main weakness is defending crosses into the edge of the six-yard box. It seems that opponents are able to receive the ball very easily and get some very good shot opportunities. I also noticed that their right-sided center back, Andres Mosquera doesn't look particularly great at closing down opponents coming into the box. His stats support that observation too: in the past 365 days, he has averaged 0.61 interceptions per 90 minutes (3rd percentile), 0.84 blocks per 90 (13th percentile), and 1.35 aerial duels won (10th percentile). Those are some... pretty meager stats. If Atlanta can take advantage of this weak link in defense, they could find it easier to put the ball in the back of the net.
Something else to note is that a lot of the Diablos Rojos' chance creation comes as a result of play from the wings. Many of their sequences start with a long through ball from a center midfielder (typically Ruiz) into a winger running an overlap who then either runs to the byline for a deadly cutback or finds an open teammate in the box with a quick cross. Another thing to look out for is how Toluca gets forward with numbers and can often have anywhere from 3-5 players in the box on any given attack. Given Atlanta United's defensive troubles in preseason so far, this may be something they struggle with.
Atlanta United Predicted XI
Toluca Predicted XI*
*Seeing as Toluca are in the middle of their season, I wouldn't be surprised to see some rotation from their usual starters. This prediction reflects that.
Score Prediction: 4-2 Atlanta United
Both teams are going to create some good chances and even find the net a couple of times, but given Toluca's rotation and some of their players having played just a couple of days ago, I expect fatigue will give Atlanta United an edge and they'll be able to outscore the visitors to claim their second AMFAM Cup title. I'm thinking a Luiz Araújo brace along with goals from Thiago Almada and Caleb Wiley secure the win for the Five Stripes.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!