The talk surrounding Atlanta United heading into their inaugural season with the immense attacking talent that the club’s technical staff had assembled. But, it’s been the team’s defensive capabilities that have really propelled them to being a competitive side from the outset of this season. For the majority of the first seven matches, the defense has been extremely solid and consistent, averaging an even one goal conceded per match so far.
The story was much of the same for the 3-1 win against Real Salt Lake on Saturday. In a very hectic, back-and-forth match, the defense flexed a few times but didn’t break until the 69th minute when Albert Rusnak collected a ball with space near the edge of the Atlanta United penalty area and struck a very nice low shot past Alec Kann. It was the team’s first major breakdown defensively of the night. By request, we’re going to look at the play step-by-step and figure out what went wrong for the Five Stripes.
Ironically, the major point that begins the entire sequence is great defending by Atlanta United. Specifically by Michael Parkhurst. The veteran center back makes an excellent read on a pass from midfield to make a clean interception and start a counter-attack towards the RSL goal. The reason this is important to the Rusnak goal is because Parkhurst intercepts the ball so cleanly that he takes it in stride with space in front of him and makes a good decision to take it to try and get a good scoring chance. He takes a touch then dishes the ball to the playmaker, Miguel Almiron, and notices that there aren’t many numbers forward for Atlanta. He takes it upon himself to keep making a run to give Almiron an option or at least draw a defender or two out of position for the other attackers.
Unfortunately, no one defending cares about Parkhurst’s run or really pays much attention to him. Kyle Beckerman, who has already noticed the danger and has dropped deep, keeps his eyes squarely on Almiron as Miggy decides to cut inside where he’s tackled by the U.S. international. Perhaps this is where the biggest mistake of the whole sequence occurs. Miggy has three options and takes the worst one. He could’ve played Parkhurst in on goal with the nice run he was making. Or he could’ve been better off noticing that the attacking advantage wasn’t there with RSL having sufficient numbers back and he only had Jones and Parkhurst in support. In hindsight, cutting inside was the worst thing he could’ve done. Instead, a quick turnover leaves the whole team shape out of wack and Parkhurst the furthest man up the field.
Beckerman’s tackle perfectly finds Demar Phillips with space to run and this where the goal is made. Tito Villalba deserves praise here for noticing that numbers were pushed forward and that he should stay back in case such a turnover occurs. His decision pays off as he’s in position to stop the counter. Unfortunately, Phillips makes a nice/lucky play to nutmeg Tito to get past him. Tito races back to slow him down and is joined by Carlos Carmona. It’s important to remember here that Carmona is already carrying a yellow card from the first half. There’s no doubt in my mind that if that wasn’t the case he would’ve hacked Phillips down to stop the dangerous counter-attack late in the game.
Instead, Phillips makes another great move to elude Carmona and find Joao Plata open on the wing. With Carmona pulled out of position and unable to foul, Luke Mulholland is unmarked in the center of the field and is found by Plata. At this point, Larentowicz is covering the center back spot vacated by Parkhurst leaving both of your defensive midfielders out of position. Yamil Asad has sprinted all the way back from making a run into the box from his left wing spot to the middle of the field to try and fill the void, but misreads his positioning and misses on Mulholland as he turns on goal. The leaves Greg Garza out on the left trying to mark two players. Meanwhile, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is left on an island. Neither decide to pressure the ball, opting to play it conservative and give Rusnak space at the top of the box instead of risking leaving someone open to go in on goal.
When it becomes clear that Rusnak is going to have a shot on goal, both Pirez and Larentowicz go for the block. It’s another bit of misfortune as the shot finds its way through both players and gets past a screened Kann who sees two defenders going for it and suddenly sees the ball coming at him and past him.
Who to blame?
After every goal conceded that’s what everyone wants to know right? Who’s at fault? The answer to that question on this goal is complicated and multi-faceted. It may sound harsh, but Miguel Almiron is most at fault for the bad decision to try and take on two players at the top of the box instead of taking the other two safer options.
Tito Villalba and Carlos Carmona are partly at fault for not fouling Phillips to break up the counter or stopping it completely with great defense. However, it must be said that luck was again involved during that run.
Pirez and Garza make a conscious decision not to rush out to close down Rusnak with the danger becomes evident. Considering the score was 2-0 at the time, that was probably a good move. There wasn’t a need to abandon all last-minute defensive shape to prevent a long-range shot. Rusnak’s shot was just perfectly placed to avoid both block attempts by Pirez and Larentowicz. And the fact that it squeezes past two defenders makes it hard to see for Kann who is a tad late to react to the great shot.
This goal was a mixture of bad decision making on the attacking end, bad luck with Phillips’ run and Carmona being unable to foul, and a very talent player in Rusnak just putting a very well-placed shot on goal.
Thankfully this goal didn’t come back to haunt Atlanta United as they iced the match in stoppage time and got the three points.