Atlanta United labored through an uninspired performance in the nation’s capital Wednesday night, losing for the third time of the season to the Eastern Conference's last-placed team, D.C. United. Here’s what we learned:
The “rest” was too long
You know how they say, “everything is okay in moderation?” Well apparently that includes “not playing soccer games.” Having not played a match since August 6 (a.k.a. “the dragon episode of Game of Thrones), and only having played 3 matches total in the last 50 days, Atlanta didn’t look sharp and didn’t look fit. The team’s natural talent stood out in the first 25 minutes, but they looked physically exhausted and mentally slow to react as the half progressed.
The second half only got worse. Defenders only had the energy to jog toward 50-50 balls, the team struggled to play with any sort of tempo, and D.C.’s counter attacks sapped even more energy as the team struggled to chase the ball. So often, fans and pundits alike correlate rest as an unequivocally good thing. When the juice on the battery is low, it needs to be charged, right? Our bodies don’t work like that. Rest can help the body to a degree, but as a wise man once said, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” This team is clearly in need of games to establish a rhythm from a tactical perspective, and obviously fitness.
Atlanta United is haunted by the RFK racoons
If you needed visible proof of such a thing, you got it tonight. I think we can all agree that Atlanta is a pretty good team, right? We’ve got some full internationals for south american sides, we’ve got guys with European experience, we have MLS veterans... I’m not saying we’re world beaters, but were objectively good right?
So explain how that kind of a team loses three times in a season to the conference’s worst team and one of the worst in MLS? I’ll tell you -- racoons. Evil, haunted racoons at that. Those guys live in RFK Stadium, home of the might D.C. United, and they surely decided to sleep in Atlanta’s dressing room the day of the game. Remember, these puppies are nocturnal, so they would’ve awoken soon before Atlanta arrived, meaning the magic was still strong. Yeah...
Tito Villalba is sick of people saying he can’t dribble
At least, we can only assume, based on the way he was driving at defenders and winning 1v1 opportunities. He looked Atlanta’s most dangerous player on the night, and always looked like he was going to be the inspiration behind a goal (if such a thing were to have happened) for the Five Stripes. If this team is going to make a playoff run, and by that I mean advancing in the playoffs, Villalba will need to be a danger on the right flank. Teams will need to have a plan for defending him, or more importantly, that side of the pitch. At the moment, most of the combination play seems to flow through the left side with Almiron, Asad and Garza linking up. If Villalba can continue along this path, it will help the team immensely as other players like Josef Martinez and Yamil Asad round into form.
Atlanta needs to figure out how to utilize Miguel Almiron
It’s no surprise that the teams that Atlanta have struggled against the most this season have been teams that have sat back and played defensively, stifling Atlanta’s attacking players by limiting the space the have to work. D.C. has proven the effectiveness of this tactic with it’s three wins against Atlanta this year, conceding possession to the Five Stripes in each of the matches. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t working hard. D.C. has done a great job of denying space to Atlanta’s attacking trident of Asad, Almiron, and Josef Martinez, especially in the most dangerous zones in and in front of the box. Wednesday night, we saw Almiron dropping deeper and wider as the game wore on — away from the danger areas where he could make an imprint on the game.
I have no doubt that Tata Martino and his staff will recognize this, but they need to come up with some creative solutions to figure out a way to get one of the league’s most dynamic and inventive players in areas where he can make a difference. It’s not a major problem, we don’t need to blow up the tactic and start again (like I so often do in haste playing Football Manager), but tweak things here and there. And maybe the solution is to allow him to be marked so that other players can exploit areas in and around the box. But most people watching the game Wednesday knew we’d need a miracle (a set piece goal or random header), if we were going to find a goal in that second half.