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Five Thoughts: Atlanta United fails to put Sounders to the sword

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A frustrating, defensive opponent proves difficult to defeat

MLS: Seattle Sounders at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Ezequiel Barco was not a problem. Almiron was.

Following (and during) Atlanta United’s 1-1 draw against a 10-man Seattle Sounders team Sunday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, 19-year-old Ezequiel Barco found himself on the wrong end of criticism—notably from MLS’s lead analyst Matt Doyle, but also from several Atlanta United fans. There are many culprits you can point the finger at for Atlanta United failing to take home the three points, but Barco certainly wasn’t one of them. The numbers alone are quite telling. He lead the team in chances created, chances created from open play, was second in touches (behind Parkhurst) and third in total passes (behind Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez). Was Barco perfect? No, and he still has a ton of growth ahead of him at just 19 years of age. But he looked more assured of himself Sunday, and it was one of his more consistent performances throughout the 90 minutes than we’ve seen all season.

Miguel Almiron’s performance was a bigger issue. He is the leader of this team. He is the one his teammates rely upon to spearhead the attack, to get into dangerous positions in the box, and to deliver service to Josef Martinez. Almiron completed the lowest percentage of passes in the team Sunday, and routinely found himself drifting to the left flank to receive passes since Seattle was so compact in the middle.

But there are 15 million reasons why Ezequiel Barco is easier to blame. I’m not defending his performances outside of this match, but to single him out for blame Sunday is plain wrong. Blame Almiron. Blame Guzan for not stopping a savable penalty. Blame Chris McCann for not burying a chance from a few yards away in front of goal. Barco was fine.

Good defensive teams are always a tough out.

Many saw the Sounders’ 10th-place standing in the Western Conference and assumed they should be an easy out—a pesky team that Atlanta United should easily dispatch with a few effortless swats. But there’s something different about Seattle that separates them from every team around them in the standings. They are great defensively, ranking 5th in all of MLS in goals allowed per game. The only reason they were sitting so low in the table is because Josef Martinez has more goals than their entire team this season. They are simply that bad offensively.

Seattle turned out to be exactly who we thought they were, in that respect. They were difficult as hell to play against, sitting extremely deep and compact and denying space centrally. They created next to nothing offensively—about 0.20 xG not including the penalty. And yet, the Sounders got the result they were looking for. Their strategy—to be incredibly annoying and petulant all game—worked. That’s how desperate teams scrape by in this league, and Atlanta has to work out how to better break them down in these types of games. But it’s important to recognize that Seattle is better at frustrating you than almost anyone in the league.

Atlanta’s home struggles are making the games more interesting.

Hear me out. Last year, especially once Atlanta United moved into Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they were just rolling teams. 3-0. 4-0. Even a 7-0 result. Wins seemed more of a formality than a success. Three goals seemed like the minimum acceptable amount. and with this, perhaps some complacency (combined with tired legs) lead to a disappointing final few games heading into the playoffs (followed by The Game That Shall Not Be Named).

This year has been the opposite. Matches at MBS have been dominated by controversial refereeing decisions, lackluster play from the Five Stripes, and frustrating affairs where the result is anything but a foregone conclusion. To me, this makes Atlanta United a more interesting proposition. When I walked up Northside drive last year to enter the stadium I usually knew how things would generally turn out. This year, I have no earthly idea. That makes the game fun for me, and it makes the good results feel all the more rewarding, even if more sparsely enjoyed.

Josef can’t score all the goals. He needs help.

Josef Martinez added yet again to his goal tally Sunday to bring him to a league-leading 19 on the season. He only needs eight more in Atlanta’s 13 remaining games to break the MLS single-season scoring record—an amazing achievement. And yet, it doesn’t seem like enough, at least at home where Atlanta continues to find itself up against opponents intent on denying space in the box where Martinez earns his paychecks. For the Five Stripes to reach a point where they can routinely and confidently smash through a bunkered defense, Josef can’t be the only player stationed near the opposing center backs.

“It’s difficult to play against a defense that sits so far back and just plays very defensively. It’s difficult to break that defense down,” explained Martino after Sunday’s match through a translator. “The only thing I would say, and it’s not worrisome, but something we could work on is to have somebody other than Josef (Martinez) in and around the box who’s able to score goals for us. We need to try to have more guys in goal scoring positions.”

Whether it’s a matter of personnel or a tactical tweak, it’s reassuring that Martino knows there’s an issue here. Fans have grown increasingly worried about the team’s lack of end product around the goal—particularly at Mercedes-Benz Stadium—and there hasn’t seemed to be any noticeable change over the course of the summer. Defeating these defensive teams is clearly Atlanta’s weakness at this moment, and if Atlanta can’t prove it can find a solution, you can bet your house that teams will use the same strategy come MLS Cup playoffs.

VAR strikes again

By my count, that makes at least 8 VAR reversals leading to goals/penalties given or taken away at MBS this season. I’m not talking about it.