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Portland Timbers 1-1 Atlanta United: What We Learned

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Atlanta looked like a completely different team to recent weeks.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

A struggling Atlanta United team traveled to Portland and held on for a widely unexpected 1-1 draw. The Timbers, one of MLS’s most dangerous teams, struggled for the second consecutive week without star midfielder Darlington Nagbe while Atlanta delivered a much-improved performance. Here’s what we learned:

Speed up top is a necessity

After sticking with Kenwyne Jones at striker for several games, Tata Martino finally reverted back to a team with Tito Villalba leading the line – to impressive results. Atlanta looked like a different team than what they showed the previous three games, and generally looked more dangerous with the ball and more pleasing on the eye. Villalba didn’t end up causing a direct threat – he didn’t get on the end of many through balls and only attempted one shot – but merely the threat he posed changed the tilt of the game and gave Atlanta the advantage.

To account for the speed threat posed by Villalba, Portland’s center backs played deeper, especially since Villalba was constantly playing “on the back shoulder,” making his threat ever more pronounced. The central midfielders had to drop with them as to not leave gaps in which Miguel Almiron – playing back in the middle of the park – could exploit. With so many players forced backward, it opened up space for Atlanta to easily possess the ball, and the finished the game 70% possession.

Atlanta controlled the game for the first time 11 v 11

For the first time this season with both teams at full strength, Atlanta controlled the flow of the game for most if not the duration of the game. This includes the 6-1 win over Minnesota, which was solely due to the snowy conditions. But Atlanta didn’t control the game because the players performed demonstrably better. It was because the tactics, described above, were more in line with the strengths of the squad.

To help the team recycle the ball in possession and launch attacks through Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Michael Parkhurst, Martino had Jeff Larentowicz dropping between the center backs to create a three. LGP and Parkhurst alternated carrying (dribbling) the ball up field to create numerical advantages. With Portland dropping so deep, Atlanta seemed to always have a free man to help keep the ball.

Julian Gressel is fine in the correct setup

In the span of a month, Julian Gressel has seen fans turn from singing his praises to wishing to see him on the bench. I myself was convinced that a rest would so him some good. But in today’s tactical setup, Gressel thrived and scored his first MLS goal. He found considerably more space to receive passes, so any poor or excessive touches weren’t as easily punished by Portland. Tata Martino seems to have plenty of faith in the rookie, starting him in a new role on the right wing instead of centrally As it turned out, Gressel caused problems for Portland by drifting inside when Atlanta had the ball. Gressel’s positioning and soccer IQ are good, which makes him a versatile and valuable piece of any MLS squad.

Atlanta looked fast on turf

My gut feeling is that the turf surface of Mercedes Benz Stadium will be more of a benefit than a hindrance to Atlanta, at least this season. Sure, while I don’t doubt some players will discount the possibility of coming to Atlanta because of turf, this team has performed very well on it. The ball zipped around on the surface in Portland on Sunday (can someone in the comments tell me if this is Field Turf or Greenfields?) and it looked like it helped Atlanta today (not compared to Portland, but compared to previous Atlanta performances). I think turf will generally help Atlanta in the style the team wants to play. On hot summer days, grass fields can dry out and make it hard to pass on the ground. Seeing as Atlanta has one of the warmest climates in MLS, I’m happy to have our team playing on turf. I mean, as long as they’re cool with it.

Atlanta’s demise has been greatly exaggerated

Last week was just depressing, and if you’re anything like me, you were probably thinking that it will never get better and that Atlanta will lose every game for the rest of the season and forever be known as the worst MLS team of all time. Fortunately, there’s always another game and another chance to redeem yourself. Atlanta did just that today, and while they didn’t get all three points, they may have gotten something even more important – confidence. Atlanta returns to Atlanta to host Houston Dynamo at Bobby Dodd Saturday night, and Atlanta United have something to build on.