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5 Thoughts: Atlanta United labors to draw vs. Portland

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Midseason MLS action!

MLS: Portland Timbers at Atlanta United FC John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United lives and dies with Miguel Almiron’s performances

In what is becoming a worrying trend for the the Five Stripes, Tata Martino’s men seem increasingly reliant on strong performances from Miguel Almiron. Of course, this is generally fine, as the Paraguyan playmaker is one of the league’s best and more consistent players, and it’s very rare that Atlanta gets worse than a 7/10 performance from its star man. Sunday afternoon, Portland was able to stifle Almiron in the first half with it’s low block (a very deep defensive line), not allowing him to stretch his legs too often and make runs in behind. He improved and created more chances in the second half, but unfortunately these days, one good half does not seem to be enough.

Atlanta is slow to recognize turnovers and stifle counter attacks

Since changing the tactical setup against the Columbus Crew to a 4-man back line, Atlanta has improved drastically in many areas. The team can retain possession much better, win the ball back faster, and get more numbers in the box during the attacking phases. However, Tata Martino still has a lot of work to do with this side defensively in this shape, specifically the moments that happen within the first two seconds of Atlanta conceding possession. As it stands, the team is slow to react to these situations and leaves players like Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez making instinctual, risky plays on the ball. Over the coming weeks as Martino continues to drill the players in this shape during the week, we should see an improvement and feel more solid defensively in this shape.

Ezequiel Barco needs to be better if Atlanta is going to win a trophy

I really don’t mean to be “that guy” who heaps pressure on a young player. In fact, I try to be the guy that justifies reasons for middling performances. And I will acknowledge a couple things about Barco:

  1. He didn’t decide he was a $15 million player
  2. He’s 19 years old and trying to fit into a completely foreign place. Being a professional soccer player doesn’t mean he doesn’t suffer from the same problems that you would if you moved off to Argentina without your family after high school.

Okay, so having said that, he has to improve if Atlanta is going to win anything this year. He is the main area where Atlanta has invested its resources to improve the roster (by proxy of Tito Villalba’s contract being paid with TAM). But we shouldn’t feel bad for expecting more, because we’ve seen him play better than he currently is during Independiente’s Cops Sudamericana run last year. But currently, Barco looks unsure of himself and isn’t exuding the kind of confidence we’d hope to see out of him in the final third. Instead, he’s playing passive when he should be more selfish and vice versa. He’s struggling to make decisions, and his lack of assurance feels palpable as the game wears on.

Atlanta has a home form issue

What if I told you that Atlanta’s last win at Mercedes Benz Stadium in all competitions against a full-strength opponent was in April. That’s right, it was April 28 against the Montreal Impact — a game Atlanta came back from behind to win. Atlanta’s only other win at MBS since then was to a Philadelphia Union team that played with 9 men for 70 minutes, and even that one was a bit of a nailbiter.

Who knows why this is happening. I sure don’t, but it can’t be denied that there is an issue here. And since I’m not smart enough to offer solutions right now on how to fix the problem, I am cognizant of the fact that said home form is very bad for players confidence. Atlanta United simply doesn’t look like the same team on this field that they did last year. In the team’s charter season in MBS, some teams looked defeated before the first ball was kicked. Not anymore. Visiting teams now enter Mercedes-Benz with an air of confidence about them, which means turning this form around won’t be an easy task.

Every team has issues. Welcome to midseason in MLS!

For as critical as I’ve been in this column, everything is fine. No, really, everything is fine! DO things need to be improved? Absolutely. But at least the team has clear markers for the problem areas in which it needs to improve. Never forget last season, when Atlanta was running teams out of the building on the backs of 3+ goal defeats routinely. What did that end in? This team currently sits atop the MLS standings, and even if that eventually slips, Atlanta is in an infinitely better position at this point this season than it was a year ago. That’s terrific.

Some will be upset at the amount of chances we allowed to the opponent Sunday, but it’s important to remember that said opponent, the Portland Timbers, are in the best form in the league right now and are lead by last years’ MLS MVP. They are good, and while 3 points would have been ideal. It’s foolish to think that Atlanta should’ve won the game 3-0 simply because they were playing at home with a healthy squad. It’s a funny ol game, but all things considered, there are 22 other teams in the league who’d like to be where Atlanta is — sitting atop the Supporters’ Shield standings.