Well. I, for one, am sh00k. Atlanta United’s 4-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo wasn’t just unexpected, it was basically unthinkable. It’s the worst loss in franchise history and one of Tata Martino’s most lopsided losses in his managerial career. Here are five thoughts from the disastrous league opener:
It could’ve been worse
If you’re waking up this morning and trying to remember (or shake off) how bad Atlanta was Saturday, just remember that it could’ve been much worse. Atlanta was consistently exposed at the back in 1v1 situations against Houston speedsters Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas. Time and time again they were given space to receive the ball in large pockets of space in front of Atlanta’s center backs, at which point players like Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst had no choice but to retreat backward as fast as possible. Several of these situations didn’t even result in goals, but they very well could/should have. The final stat sheet won’t show much of a difference between the two teams, but Houston definitely had the far superior chances — and the score reflected as much.
The goals conceded are correctable
Despite the ugly “4” on the scoreboard, the goals Atlanta conceded at BBVA Compass Stadium are relatively fixable things. Two of the goals came from set pieces — one an individual error by Guzan and one a lazily defended set piece. Fixable. The first goal was an individual error of poor decision-making by Gonzalez Pirez, who mistakenly thought the ball he was shielding was close enough to Guzan for the goalkeeper to collect. These kinds of mistakes can be common early in the season on an unfamiliar pitch.
Andrew Carleton’s absence from the game was a missed opportunity
Though myself and many others would’ve loved to see Atlanta’s homegrown starlet start the game in place of the injured Ezequiel Barco, it’s reasonable to understand why you wouldn’t start a 17-year old for the first time in the first game of the season on the road against a quality opponent. But the fact that the kid never got into the game at all is a huge headscratcher. Why put him in the 18-man squad if you aren’t even going to put him in when you’re down four goals and the game is a dead rubber?
If Tata Martino had to answer this question right now, I imagine he’d say that the forced substitution of having to replace LGP early limited his options. And that’s fair, but it’s still incredibly disappointing to see a player like Brandon Vazquez enter the game — a player who plays a similar position as Carleton. Not because Vazquez is a poor player or doesn’t deserve to play, but there’s more to gain in the long term by allowing a player like Carleton to get a good 30 minutes of MLS action under his belt. Martino surely has reasons for not inserting Carleton that are valid, but this was the ideal scenario to do so. This is categorically a missed opportunity.
Atlanta really, really needs to sign a defensive midfielder
One of the knock-on effects of replacing Carlos Carmona in the starting XI with Darlington Nagbe is that you need a more dynamic midfielder alongside him. The great thing about Carmona is that with all the defensive aggression and steel he added to midfield, he was also an accurate and efficient passer to keep the ball moving. While Nagbe probably gives you a little more dynamism on the ball, he’s not nearly as influential off of it as Carmona. On Saturday, Nagbe’s midfield partner Chris McCann didn’t do anything significantly wrong, but even McCann at his best isn’t the kind of rangy, tough-tackling player that Nagbe needs alongside him. Atlanta was poor throughout the game recovering second balls, and a quality midfield signing could help solidify that area of the pitch.
The result itself is of minuscule importance
If the team is able to pick up the pieces, start to improve and maintain good home form, this result is relatively insignificant. If Atlanta had lost a 2-1 squeaker, no one would be losing too much sleep. The bigger concern at this point is clearly how the team performed. But sometimes in this sport, things that seem terrible can be changed with small tweaks. In the coming days, there will be sentences typed and words spoken to suggest that Atlanta is in deep s#@!, but in the grand scheme of things, they didn’t get a win on the road. Meh.