After COVID-19 pandemic stopped almost all the official sports competitions around the world, the Major League Soccer is about to return next week, with the MLS is Back Tournament kick-off scheduled for July 8th. 

In the Group E, Atlanta United and FC Cincinnati will fight for a spot in the knockout stages, with supposedly opposite probability. The former MLS 2018 champions, Atlanta United, has been considered a title contender in the last couple of years and had started this year regular season with two wins in two games played. On the other hand, FC Cincinnati had lost their two games this season, while also having the worst MLS winning record in their MLS 2019 debuting season.

This tactical analysis will try to show the strengths and weaknesses of these two teams to anticipate where both Atlanta United and FC Cincinnati are stood to face the tournament. 

Atlanta United

Under Frank De Boer tactics, Atlanta United possession-based style of play has been set mostly using back three formations. The former Internazionale head coach used variants such as 3-4-2-1, 3-4-1-2 or 3-5-2, while sometimes changing to a 4-2-3-1. The attacking trio with Argentinians Pity Martínez and Ezequiel Barco as the creative side of it, with Josef Martínez as a finisher, was a perfect fit to those back three formations. After the Venezuelan striker got injured in the first match of the season, Atlanta United will have to show how they adapt their game style without their top-scorer.

In the last game played, which was casually against FC Cincinnati, it was striker Adam Jahn who replaced Josef Martínez, as we can see below. Jahn’s style is more based on holding the ball rather than running with it, a more positional striker than the Venezuelan star. 

MLS 2020: Atlanta United and FC Cincinnati - tactical preview tactics

In the image below, we will see the average positions of Atlanta United’s players. It clearly shows how wingers Mulraney and Lennon are responsible for providing width, with two central midfielders balancing and connecting with the front three or the wingers. As a team based on possession, centre-backs have a huge role in progressing the ball up in the pitch through passes. If Atlanta is facing a mid-block defensive display, mainly if it is a 4-4-2 from their opponents, this 3-4-2-1 formation allows them to put five players behind their opponent’s midfield line, focusing on Pity Martínez and Barco liberty to move and try to receive with enough space to build and finalize an attack. 

MLS 2020: Atlanta United and FC Cincinnati - tactical preview tactics

De Boer’s attacking style

In relation to Atlanta’s build-up play, the image below shows how Barco and Pity Martínez are positioned in the interval between opponents centre-back and full-back. This put the defenders in a difficult situation because they also have to deal with Atlanta’s wingers. Because of that, if defenders don’t coordinate well, either Barco-Martínez or the wingers will be free to receive the ball. Atlanta’s Centre-backs and midfielders should ensure a 3-2 block to progress the ball and also balance the team defensively.

MLS 2020: Atlanta United and FC Cincinnati - tactical preview tactics

The other offensive aspect that every Atlanta rival should be aware of is their offensive transitions. Although Frank De Boer intention is that his team play through long possessions and positional play, leading the league in passes per 90 last season (486.46), they also can have great benefit in offensive transitions. Both wingers are fast and the Barco-Martínez duo are both good 1v1 dribblers, so if they have space to run and face a defender, they will go for it. In the image below, an offensive transition led Pity Martínez to a 1v1 and after the successful dribble, Barco only had to push the ball into the goal.

MLS 2020: Atlanta United and FC Cincinnati - tactical preview tactics

Atlanta’s defensive challenges

Defensively, the most difficult task for Atlanta as a team is how to defend the wings. They are frequently exposed to suffer against opponents that try to overload through the wings. As the attacking front three don’t have big defensive duties, Atlanta’s defending block is a 5-2 most of the times. That put the defending wingers in trouble because they can be easily in 1v2 situations if their opponent switches the ball quickly from side to side.

MLS 2020: Atlanta United and FC Cincinnati - tactical preview tactics

We can see this in the images above and below, where attacking players can gain numerical superiority if they put the ball in the right spot.

MLS 2020: Atlanta United and FC Cincinnati - tactical preview tactics

In the defensive transitions, the same structure that allows Atlanta’s build-up is the one to face the defensive duties after a lost ball, forming a 3-2. Centre-backs pace and quick positional adjustments to cover the flanks is the key to be successful at it.

How the new piece fits

It will be an expectation to see how Atlanta’s latest addition Jürgen Damm, adapt to De Boer tactics. The Dutchman now has different quality options to prepare his attacking phase. The Mexican plays mostly as an attacking winger, but De Boer can use him occupying wide positions in his typical 3-4-2-1, or set a 4-2-3-1, where Damm, Barco and Pity Martínez should occupy the three attacking positions behind the striker. In every scenario, Damm adds different tactical solutions to the team so that will help them to be less predictable.

FC Cincinnati

After hiring the Dutch and former Manchester United player Jaap Stam as their 2020 head coach, FC Cincinnati was looking to improve their awful debuting season. Although that mission didn’t start well losing the two games played this season, both were close results against tough teams. 

It will be good to see if Jaap Stam tactics go for a more Dutch alike style of play, as he played a 4-4-2 formation against Atlanta United, which is the team with more average possession of the MLS as I mentioned before. Then, Stam played a 4-1-4-1 against the New York Red Bulls, having a 59% possession in that game. We can see the lineup in the image below.

MLS 2020: Atlanta United and FC Cincinnati - tactical preview tactics

In my opinion, it is probable that after having enough time to prepare for this tournament, FC Cincinnati will try to play a more possession-based game style. Regarding the formation, the 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 would possibly be the most used ones, along with probably a 4-4-2 when they face the top MLS rivals, just like they did against Atlanta.

Jaap Stam’s offensive approach

Since the first game of the season, FC Cincinnati showed an intention to build-up the attack playing from the back, as we see in the picture below. Unfortunately for them, they lost a lot of balls in their own half, showing signs that they need some development in that aspect. Anyway, it is important to see that the manager tried from the first game to progress the ball in that way, so we can expect improvements for the new tournament. Using the centre-backs (like experienced international Kendall Waston), they try to gain numerical superiority against the first defensive line adding the goalkeeper Richey, and letting both wing-backs to go further up in the pitch. 

MLS 2020: Atlanta United and FC Cincinnati - tactical preview tactics

In the picture below we can see how the wing-backs are the ones who grant width, while the wide attacking midfielder moves to the centre. That requires a quick adjustment from the opposite right-back to avoid Cincinnati’s wing-back to receive the ball. Once they break the midfield line, or if it is an offensive transition, they will try to attack fast through forward passes to the final third.

MLS 2020: Atlanta United and FC Cincinnati - tactical preview tactics

FC Cincinnati defensive troubles

In the defensive aspect, we should not expect this team to press high up on the pitch during the opponent’s build-up play. They set their defence in a mid-block, in this case on a 4-1-4-1, and will wait to press when the rival gets the ball near the half of the pitch. They had the third-highest PPDA of the MLS in the two games played, with 14.64. That means that they are a team with low pressing intensity.

MLS 2020: Atlanta United and FC Cincinnati - tactical preview tactics

Tied to the way that Cincinnati attacks, some defensive problems get unmasked. First, when they lose the ball near the opposition goal, they try to recover it immediately, as we can see below.

MLS 2020: Atlanta United and FC Cincinnati - tactical preview tactics

If that task is not successful and the opposition starts a counter-attack, FC Cincinnati will have problems because they have both wing-backs too high so they are not well balanced.

MLS 2020: Atlanta United and FC Cincinnati - tactical preview tactics

In the image above we can see how it is a lot of free space in the flanks. Jaap Stam squad suffered from it in this one conceding two goals in transition. We confirm this repeated situation with the image below, showing the free space just moments in which the opponent player scored.

MLS 2020: Atlanta United and FC Cincinnati - tactical preview tactics

During that short-term presentation for FC Cincinnati this year, it became exposed that they were a team that needed more time to look more solid as a whole. With the MLS is Back Tournament about to begin, it will be a good opportunity to see improvements.


Through this tactical preview, we can conclude that these two teams are way far each other in its expectations. While Atlanta United is used to be at the top of the crop in recent years, FC Cincinnati is still trying to find a path that leads them out of the last spots of the MLS. 

After showing both teams offensive and defensive tactical analysis, their strengths and weaknesses, it is just time to wait for the whistle blown next week and see if both Atlanta United and FC Cincinnati can confirm their ambitions in what should be a close Group E.