As Atlanta United has begun its 2018 campaign, there has been a somewhat surprising name that has appeared in the starting 11 in three of the team’s four games: Chris McCann. The player has been one of the more divisive figures on the Five Stripes’ roster. He was one of the first signings for the club, helped unveil the kit, and yet when it came time for the inaugural season, he appeared to be fourth on the central midfield depth chart behind Jeff Larentowicz, Carlos Carmona, and Julian Gressel.
With the departure of Carmona and the absence of Michael Parkhurst in week one, it seemed like McCann may get a chance to play as a defensive midfielder in 2018. Tata Martino shifted Jeff Larentowicz to center back and started Chris McCann at CDM to start the year against the Houston Dynamo. It may have only been a temporary move, but it was a disaster. Atlanta United has struggled with Larentowicz as a defender in part because the options at CDM are thin and he is so valuable there. In any case, Atlanta has now allowed a disturbing eight goals in three games with him starting in the backline, and McCann showed he was not a good option in the center of the pitch for the Five Stripes.
In his performance in the Houston game, McCann looked out of place in central midfield and failed to shield the backline. It left a question as to why he was earning a half-million dollar salary on a club where he didn’t seem to fit in with the overall scheme Martino wants to play. McCann looked unsure on the ball, out of sync with midfield partner Darlington Nagbe, and the result was Houston tearing through the midfield to the tune of the worst loss in club history. Defensive midfield is a difficult position to play as a good No. 6 will probably go unnoticed in a game, like Michael Bradley or Alexander Ring, because their job isn’t to push the play forward in the attack, but is more defensively oriented.
Our own Payson Schwin pulled a comparative passing map to illustrate this point even further:
Look how Carmona and Larentowicz put the area in front of the CB’s on lockdown last season against Houston. Yesterday, Nagbe and McCann didn’t do the same. (Obviously this is skewed a bit because #ATLUTD was chasing goals, but still.) pic.twitter.com/5k7o0KosFu— Paysoninho (@paysoninho) March 4, 2018
Yet, when McCann has played on the outside either as a left back, left wingback, or left midfielder, he has fit in well with the club. Against the Vancouver Whitecaps he was inserted into the lineup for Greg Garza and in addition to displaying the skill of being tall, out wide McCann showed that he can be a capable defender while also pushing the attack in transition.
Possibly his most convincing performance came over the weekend on a cold night in Minnesota at a completely new position with Atlanta at least - left center back. Obviously, things did not go as planned for nearly an hour in the match, but in the 38 minutes that the two teams were even, the Atlanta backline played well. The defense held Minnesota to only one shot on goal before going down a man and largely prevented the Loons from heating up once LGP got the red card.
One of McCann’s three interceptions came on this sequence. This is a particularly dangerous play for Atlanta - it starts with LGP playing a ball to Miguel Almiron who takes a bad touch, giving Minnesota possession. Nothing good happens when the ball is given up in the center of the pitch and immediately after an opponent loses possession is when a countering team is most dangerous. Yet when Tyrone Mears tries to work a ball down the flank to Ethan Finlay, McCann calmly takes it from him.
Here, with the game state changed and Atlanta down to 10 men, Ibson plays a ball to Rasmus Schuller. The midfielder looks up, sees Ethan Finlay making a run, and tries to play him through. McCann is patrolling Zone 14 the entire play and with Greg Garza covering Finlay’s run, McCann clears the ball to Miguel Almiron who turns up field. His positional awareness and understanding that Garza had the runner covered turned a potentially dangerous play into a potential chance for a counter for the Five Stripes.
In addition, McCann showed that he can handle a position where Atlanta badly needs depth. The Larentowicz experiment at CB has not created great results, Miles Robinson seems to have improved but hasn’t played in an MLS game, and Sal Zizzo is learning his new team still, though he did come off the bench against Minnesota. Lacking depth was a problem for Atlanta last season and the team suffered in games where Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez missed due to suspension. Until last weekend in matches without LGP, Atlanta was 0-1-2 with 7 goals allowed, meanwhile in Minnesota the team only allowed two shots on target and kept a clean sheet without him on the field for most of the game.
After struggling to settle in as a central midfielder, Chris McCann has shown that he can be a valuable asset for Atlanta United. With early an season injury to Franco Escobar and LGP suspended, the Five Stripes are again left to fill a much needed role on the team. Fans will be glad to see McCann on the team sheet if he starts this weekend on the left side of the pitch.