Atlanta United is good at soccer. Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, Darlington Nagbe, these are all key pieces on one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
But, unlike 2018... they're also pretty boring to watch. And that's by design.
Frank de Boer is all about structure. He wants seven players behind the ball defensively and protection in the center at all times. Nagbe's two-way game has improved this season and de Boer can sit either Eric Remedi or Jeff Larentowicz next to the former US international.
Behind the midfield, Atlanta has preferred to use three center backs with Miles Robinson as the anchor. Robinson's hamstring injury -- picked up with the US National Team -- means Atlanta will need to lean on Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Florentin Pogba, and Franco Escobar on Thursday. That's not an entirely convincing trio, but Philly will still need to catch Atlanta in transition to expose them.
In attack, Atlanta has two keys that start their offensive engine. Barco's renewed confidence allows them to drive the ball forward even without big offseason signing Pity Martinez on the pitch. Barco's 1v1 game in the center of the pitch draws eyes away from Josef Martinez, and the striker will skip behind a defense the moment he disappears from view.
The second key is Julian Gressel's balls behind the back line from the wing. Gressel can ping the ball into space with unnerving consistency, and that means it's important to keep his head down and have Andre Blake at the ready to control the gap between himself and the center backs.
Again, Barco and Gressel as your two key playmakers around Martinez is not as exciting as the mazy running of Miguel Almiron, but it has been effective enough to get Atlanta through many tough matches this season now that everyone understands how to execute de Boer's highly structured system.
The Union face off with Atlanta at 8:00 p.m. ET on Thursday on ESPN2.