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Atlanta United’s success at Mercedez Benz Stadium has created a dilemma few saw coming

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Can the team afford to rotate players with so much left to play for?

MLS: Montreal Impact at Atlanta United FC Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

This post features updated recalculated Eastern Conference PACE Standings as of Monday 9/25/17, a comparison of pressing stats to date between the two ATLUTD home stadia, glowing praise for the courage and skill of our players, and of course... some dread.

Preamble on Table Math

Because MLS features a uniquely unbalanced schedule, one that makes the standard "table" basically useless at any given point in time except for the last day of the season, I've been tweaking the numbers all year long to give us quick peaks at what a balanced table might look like every couple of weeks. There is nothing complicated about the way I organize the numbers. Realizing that different teams have played different amounts of games, and realizing that different teams have played different amounts of home games and away games (and further realizing that home field advantage is significant in MLS), I compare each team's total points to date, to the sum of (a team's # home games played X 2 points per game) + (a team's # of away games played X 1 point per game). 2 ppg and 1 ppg are reasonable (and importantly clean) proxies for the historical average MLS points per game for home teams and away teams (actuals are 1.78 and 0.96, respectively). The difference between the total number of points a team has earned at any given moment and this sum presents a fair and balanced metric for measuring what a team has achieved relative to what their schedule has required of them to date. I have called this metric “PACE.” I can’t remember why.

This apples-to-apples view allows us to compare for instance the New York Red Bulls sitting on a PACE of -1 to the Montreal Impact with a PACE of -6. While the Red Bulls are only 3 points above Montreal in the official table, they’ve also played 1 fewer game than the Impact, and it’s a home game. So a more realistic comparison (using PACE) shows the Red Bulls with a healthy 5 point lead over Montreal instead of the 3 points the table shows. And importantly, the PACE standings will converge with the actual MLS table once all teams have played the same number of home and away games. I like it because it’s both a) grounded in reality and b) easy to interpret at a glance, whereas Points per game is very grounded in reality but difficult to contextualize the decimal place differences in one's head.

Atlanta United and the one true standings

The sermon I've been preaching since very early on in the season has been that because Atlanta's schedule has been all jacked up, anyone that's described Atlanta's position in the league or their performance to date by pointing to the official table has been getting it wrong. While Atlanta spent large portions of the year #belowtheredline and large portions of the year in 6th place if you look at the official table, I have long maintained that they've been above the true red line basically the entire year and challenging for spots 2-4 in the East for some time now. And in fact, after Sunday night's victory over the Impact, finally Atlanta are sitting 3rd in the official table, something that had been reflected in PACE for a while now.

But, this is not a "told ya so" post. Because, while my numbers have shown Atlanta sitting pretty for quite some time, I've always acknowledged the metric as being a backwards looking one. And with that, I have a confession to make: I was suspicious of Mercedes Benz Stadium, the congested fixture list, and what turf / crowd dynamics and general disruptions in superstition might do to the team's home form. The numbers suggested Atlanta were comfortably in a playoff position and battling for greater honors heading into the break before MBS’ unveiling, but my fears around the new stadium, perhaps driven by my love for Bobby Dodd made me doubt them.

I have to say that I was probably wrong about the Benz. While we've had a couple very odd matches so far that are distorting our perceptions for sure, I am beginning to believe there's something to this "larger pitch" concept, whereby Atlanta United now have more space to tear into at speed, and their opponents are having limited success clogging the middle and bunkering. I’d love to have a larger sample, but it certainly feels this way in person, especially on the right side of the field. Many smart people were early to recognize and/or predict this (Rob Usry and Darren Eales, if those are actually two separate people), but I was suspicious of it. Oh well.

To summarize the overall performance in the Benz matches to date, Atlanta have claimed 13 out of a possible 15 points, and in terms of PACE that's 13 vs an expected 10 (5 games X 2ppg) for +3. That is an incredible home pace if maintained over a full season. The PACE numbers now suggest that Atlanta is effectively 3 points in front of Chicago for the 3rd spot in the East, and LEVEL with NYCFC for the very important 2nd place. Toronto is not really catch-able.

Strength leads to success leads to opportunities leads to threats leads to weaknesses, leads to... Porter's Five Forces? Marta's Five Stripes? ugh

If the material so far has seemed a bit too cheery for one of my posts, here's why: while Atlanta have basically clinched a playoff berth (something I never would've thought to happen with this many games left to play), they now have some very difficult decisions to make. Here are a couple important questions.

  1. With Garza missing time with a muscle injury and now Almiron sidelined for basically the rest of the regular season at least, are we ready to start rotating the squad to ensure that players who run sprints over and over again for 90 minutes (Tito and Martinez) don't suffer the same fate?
  2. With 6th confirmed (playoffs), and 4th looking pretty good (hosting first round game), how important might it be to battle with NYCFC for 2nd (and a first round bye) through the end of the season?

After all, a 3 point lead (on a balanced schedule) is solid, but it's also the sort of lead a team might give up when it starts rotating its squad. And beating out NYCFC for second (and claiming the valuable first round bye) is a worthy endeavor but achieving that would certainly require minimal rotation from here on out. AmericanSoccerAnalysis has updated its playoff seeding odds and sees Atlanta as the roughly 60% favorite to grab the 2nd seed — it’s tantalizing isn’t it?

And on the question of rotation, do we need to rotate? After all, I was wrong about the team dropping points so far in the congested home schedule. Maybe the team *can* race through 2 games a week without rotating? Let me attempt to support why I think this is wrong.

The Case for Rotation

I'm not the first to make a case for rotating players at this point. Doyle did so here. And Paysoninho's piece at MLSSoccer.com has some very good quotes from Martino and LGP on this. I want to focus on Pirez' comments:

“In the second half today, I think we felt it,” said Atlanta center back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. “Playing five games in a row, especially in the style that we play – we want to have the ball, press high, and control the game. So I think today in the second half we lost our legs a little bit, but it’s just from playing five games in a row.”

While I'd love for more games of data to draw upon, and would also love for 2 of the games in the Benz not to have had weird sending offs which normally skew these things, what LGP talks about here shows up in some of the pressing metrics I look at:

It appears as though while the Five Stripes have really boosted both their underlying attacking output and the results of said output (goals), they haven't been able to replicate the same level of high pressure from the Bobby Dodd days. Opponents are passing the ball more in their own halves, and turning the ball over 8 fewer times in their own halves. Additionally, Atlanta’s high pressure numbers are dropping off in the second halves of games at MBS compared to Bobby Dodd where they were generally just as intense in the second half or gradually more so. Whereas at Bobby Dodd, Atlanta's attack was fueled by high pressure, turnovers in their opponents' halves, and the resulting high quality shots, at the Benz, the pressure is lighter and shots and goals are coming from everywhere: deeper counter attacks, set pieces, sustained build-up, Larentowicz's gut, etc. We're seeing Tito the target forward running into space on deep counter attacks when Atlanta wins the ball back in their own third much more often than we used to. I think it's plausible that high pressure in general is harder for all teams (Atlanta and their opponents) at the Benz. On the other side of the ball Atlanta are feeling less pressure as well and looking more composed, although there's some definite red card skewing somewhere in there:

This is all very good if you're one of the "Atlanta can't unlock teams that sit back" people. But when I watch these guys at the games I'm amazed every game now, how hard they work, and committed they are at making runs that mathematically cannot be rewarded every time. The work these guys are putting in is insane, and we've already seen some casualties (and not just Jay Heap). My ability (or lack of one) to break the games down tactically and analytically is being tested week in and week out with the incredible feats of athleticism, skill, and determination. But based on the evidence before me, without some squad rotation, I don't think Almiron will be the last we see to suffer an injury. Just this week on twitter I suggested the bye was worth fighting for -- the ability to skip a pressure-filled midweek elimination game and instead automatically advance into the conference semi-finals as an expansion team. Now, with Almiron walking off the turf looking so defeated (and apparently out at least 3 weeks with a hamstring injury), and LGP and Tata acknowledging how this stretch of games has actually taken its toll, I think I'm probably on team "how bout Kenwyne, Vazquez, and Peterson up front in New England this weekend?" Atlanta have 6 PACE Pts on Columbus and 2 present day IRL points (having played 2 fewer games). That has to be the main objective at this point: just make sure you have enough points in the end to host the play-in game in the starship that is currently uncloaked and hovering above the Gulch.