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Blaming refs won’t improve Atlanta United

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Focusing on the officials isn’t going to help the Five Stripes beat the best teams in MLS

MLS: Montreal Impact at Orlando City SC Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United will have some extra time to think about the game against the New York Red Bulls between now and their match in New England next Wednesday. Hopefully it is useful and the team will look at how they got beat by a top opponent at home following another loss to Sporting Kansas City. Not how the refs beat Atlanta United in both games, not how calls were or weren’t made by an official that played a role in the matches beat Atlanta United, and not how goals were disallowed the last two times the team played at home beat Atlanta United. At this point the story about officiating has been told, and told, and told, but the officials weren’t making Atlanta poorly mark Bradley Wright-Phillips on two goals or get the tactics wrong against New York.

In the wake of the loss there are probably questions being asked about the team. Did they give up? Were the refs wrong? Does the team need to grow up?

From behind my keyboard, it doesn’t seem like the team gave up, but rather than a concerted, coordinated well implemented game plan last weekend, Atlanta was forced by their opponents to rely on individual acts of brilliance that would get a result and the match seemed like it was abandoned. As far as the refs, like it or not the calls that went against Atlanta United were at worst subjective and at best were correctly called. In fact, a review decision even went right for Atlanta in the game when Jeff Larentowicz’s red card was rescinded.

Looking at how the teams played, it appears that New York came to Atlanta with a plan and ruthlessly executed it.

Throughout the game the Red Bulls were effective at marking Miguel Almiron out of plays with multiple players closing him down every time he touched the ball while pressing Darlington Nagbe and Ezequiel Barco so that they couldn’t play into dangerous places to create chances. The shots map illustrates this with Atlanta overwhelmingly having to settle for long range efforts when they were able to get a shot off.

Without the ability to build through the left side, the attack mainly came through the right. Julian Gressel is a terrific player, but he isn’t going to break down a team like Almiron can, and he sure isn’t going to run past them like Tito Villaba, and by forcing play to go through him rather than through Miguel, New York largely nullified the Atlanta attack. Left with few chances to pass through the Red Bulls defense, Atlanta players were left to go one on one - or one on four as it seemed like - against their defense. It didn’t work.

In fact, New York’s play was so successful that they created a red card when Greg Garza tried to force a play to make something happen. When he was dispossessed he committed a foul while trying to get the ball back and was sent off. In attack, the Red Bulls avoided possession deciding instead to go right at goal with a singular and lazer focused purpose. The result was a forced penalty and two goals scored by Bradley Wright-Phillips. These are all things that New York did that disrupted Atlanta’s game plan and made it look like they gave up.

While this is troubling, comments from Atlanta United players and coaches largely didn’t focus on the game or what New York did to win it, they were focused on the refs. Whether responding the media looking to push a narrative, or perhaps just blowing off steam after a hard fought and disappointing game, the post match comments seemed to focus more on calls by the officials, and who the officials were, rather than on how Atlanta and New York executed in the game.

In talking about the calls in the match, Tata Martino seemed to give New York credit with the manager saying, “we played against a very good team.” However, Martino followed that statement up with the comment that, “But when two good teams play, we need something more even, more fair on the calls.” The Atlanta manager went dug in on his statements discussing the rescinded call against Jeff Larentoicz which he thought should have been a foul on New York saying, “I think, in this case about the referee who is in charge of VAR, is to minimize the mistake of the referee. Because he can’t say, ‘no, it’s a foul on the other team,’ so he gives a yellow card, but the call is for the same team. But what they’re doing is covering for each other, and it’s logical because they’re co-workers.” This comes after the last match at Mercedes Benz-Stadium when Martino criticized Mark Geiger saying, “It’s not my problem, it’s the league’s because this is the guy they’re sending to World Cups.. usually they send the best one so if this is the best one...”

Despite telling reporters, “Listen, at the end of the day, we weren’t good enough today, so we’re not making excuses. We were not good enough,” Brad Guzan also had this exchange:

Michael Parkhurst didn’t offer, and perhaps wasn’t asked, an opinion about the referees in the match. His response to the loss was, “We really kept them at bay until the penalty, so it was unfortunate that we went into the half 1-1, but the response in the second half wasn’t good enough. There were some crazy things with the red card that doesn’t get a red card, but, still, we just didn’t make enough plays in the second half.” As far as the goal that Bradley Wright-Phillips scored after evading the United captain, Parkhurst said, “That’s my guy. I knew he was there. I thought the ball was going to get played in behind us (and) over my back shoulder. I never saw that he got right in front of me.” This kind of leadership and accepting responsibility is why Parkhurst is the captain and should be embraced by the rest of the team moving forward.

Last year Atlanta United had a different type of problem when it came to the mental side of the game. In matches against teams like the Vancouver Whitecaps and three times against DC United, Atlanta United lost to what were teams they should have gotten a better result from. After those games, players talked about losing concentration and focus but as the three results against DC attest, they didn’t seem to always take that recognition and address it as a team.

It seems like Atlanta is in danger of doing the same thing in 2018. This time, however, rather than reacting poorly against teams that they are unlikely to face in the playoffs or MLS Cup, the Five Stripes are doing it against the best teams in the league. At the end of the day it falls on the leaders of the club and Tata Martino to set the tone and instill in the players the need to focus on what the team can control in order to overcome obstacles rather than blame influences on the game that they cannot sway. Unless they do that, Atlanta will continue to crush lesser opposition and struggle against the best sides in MLS.