The 19-year-old is proving himself more than just a good fill-in option.
Nicolas Lodeiro is expected to return to the lineup this week, either as a sub or starter. Getting back a regular contender for MLS MVP is an undeniably good thing for the Seattle Sounders, but it does pose some lineup challenges for Brian Schmetzer.
The biggest might be what to do with Josh Atencio. The 19-year-old has ranged from solid to standout in his appearances so far and Schmetzer has indicated that he’ll continue to find ways to use the midfielder.
“Our staff has done a great job of putting Josh in positions to succeed,” Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey recently said during an episode of Sounders Weekly. “He hasn’t made it yet, but he’s off to a really good start. I think it’s pretty likely he gets another opportunity.
“But can Josh play at a level where when Nico Lodeiro returns — whenever that is? Does Josh stay on the field? As with any young player, what Josh is doing is potentially making that tough for the coaching staff.”
Barring injury to one of the Sounders’ three central midfielders, the most straightforward option is to simply continue to use Atencio as a spot-starter and as a late-game sub. There are probably 500-1,000 available minutes that way, depending on who gets called up for national teams during the summer.
But if the Sounders are really as high on Atencio as they seem, it makes sense to at least look for more creative ways to get him on the field. Barring injury, there are two formations I suspect we could see him in: a diamond midfield or a 3-4-2-1.
I suspect most of you know what a diamond midfield looks like, but in case you don’t it usually sacrifices a centerback for a fourth central midfielder.
Atencio would likely play one of the two shuttlers or at the base of the diamond in such a formation, but may not be perfectly suited for either role. Atencio has not yet shown himself to be particularly goal-dangerous nor does he seem to be a classic destroyer.
The diamond is also considered a bit of a specialist formation in that teams who employ often drill extensively. The formation’s main strength — a four-man central midfield — can become a weakness if there isn’t a high degree of coordination.
The other option is to play more of a midfield box. There are teams that have done this with two forwards — Jesse Marsch’s New York Red Bulls being a prime recent example — but the Sounders seem more likely to use it with three centerbacks in a 3-4-2-1.
In this formation, which more closely conforms to Atencio’s strengths, he’d likely play alongside João Paulo or Cristian Roldan in more of a double-pivot and effectively sacrifices a forward. Lodeiro could then play in one of the two attacking midfield spots, alongside any number of partners. This formation would be particularly useful in the summer when players like Raúl Ruidíaz (Peru), Roldan (the United States) and Xavier Arreaga (Ecuador) are away on international duty.
The other big benefit to the 3-4-2-1 over the diamond is that the Sounders are already using it. In their 4-0 win over Minnesota United in Week 1, they played a version of this the entire time Fredy Montero was on the pitch. They scored two goals during those 17+ minutes and looked consistently dangerous.
The point here is that the Sounders have options beyond simply sending Atencio back to the bench. He’s proven himself to be a capable defender, a confident passer and someone who has the potential to develop into a difference maker. Finding ways to get him on the field isn’t just about developing another good player, it’s about potentially raising the whole team’s level.