Atlanta United’s road performances show how different it is from last year
Atlanta has 9 points from 4 road games so far this season, and aside from the one fruitless result that went tits up right off the jump in Houston, the team has proved to be more resilient than last season. The team approaches these games with a new savvy and poise that was not present last season. Tata Martino has admitted that with his staff being new to the league last year and all the peculiarities that comes with playing in MLS, there was an adjustment period for him and the team. MLS is quite different from most other leagues around the world in many ways, but especially in regards to travel as the country is so vast with varying environments. The club looks like it’s much more comfortable with regard to these characteristics of the league this season.
Franco Escobar slotted into the side and played well
Franco Escobar was given his first start since being knocked out of the team (pun intended) by Brad Guzan at the end of Atlanta’s match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. The Argentine played well, with several tidy tackles and ball recoveries to relieve pressure, especially late in the game when Chicago was pouring men forward. Unfortunately for Escobar, Guzan couldn’t help but clatter into the poor guy again and knock him out of the game during the waning minutes for the second time this season. His performance was as good — if not better — than Chris McCann’s recent appearances, and with the Irishman reportedly feeling some tightness in his hamstring, you’d expect Escobar to keep his starting place if Tata Martino sticks with the 3-5-2.
It’s time to switch to a 4-2-3-1
Yes, the results under this formation have been great, but Saturday night we saw another reason why the 3-5-2 is perhaps not optimal. The formation prevents Atlanta’s defenders and wing players from pushing up the pitch. By hanging back deep, it creates gaps in front of the defensive line for opponents to play through, and Chicago took advantage of that space, especially in the first half. In my opinion, Atlanta has seen diminishing returns with this formation in recent weeks and has largely been carried by moments of individual brilliance. It’s great that we’ve developed an understanding of how to play in this shape and there’s no doubt we should continue to see it at times throughout the season. I don’t think it doesn’t work or that it needs to be completely trashed — not at all. And to be honest, maybe this conversation is a pedantic one. Maybe the talent disparity between Atlanta and most of the rest of MLS is so large that the team doesn’t have to be in it’s optimized tactical setup to win games.
Tata waited too long to bring on Tito Villalba
I love Tito Villalba and what he offers Atlanta United with his game-changing speed and athleticism, but I know for a fact that no one appreciates what Tito brings to the table more than his manager Tata Martino. And that’s why I was surprised that we didn’t see Villalba make an appearance in the game until the final 12 minutes. Whatever the reasons for that were, I really would’ve liked to see him come on earlier so that he could start to develop some form that will have him challenging for the first XI. He’s a player that will need significant minutes to get back in rhythm with the team, and having played an entire half last week, I assumed he would’ve gotten at least that much time Saturday night (I thought there was a decent chance he might start with the team playing a 4-3-3).
Leading MLS, Atlanta United are officially frontrunners
Atlanta United is finally in first place, justifying all the other statistics in which the Five Stripes lead the league. Atlanta is officially setting the pace for the Supporters Shield chase, and Tata Martino and staff will need to make sure complacency does not creep in at any point. Fortunately for him, the team’s leaders — veteran MLS players like Michael Parkhurst, Brad Guzan, and Jeff Larentowicz — know how important it is to focus every week on the task at hand (and remind journalists of this!). It requires a strong, winning mentality to be able to hold on to a league lead, and that mentality will be put to the test this month with tough matches coming up thick and fast. Atlanta United plays host to the Western Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City, followed by a rivalry match away to Orlando and then against red hot New York Red Bulls. It will no doubt be the toughest stretch of the season, and if Atlanta is still leading MLS following those matches... watch out.