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Five Thoughts: Atlanta United lets a late lead slip again

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S*** happens.

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

First, regarding critical and rational thought

Before diving into the game yesterday, I want to talk for a moment about how we, fans, criticize the team. I’m not against criticism. As a website, Dirty South Soccer tries to uncover truths and help fans better understand this team and the sport in general. Whether that’s through reporting stories or breaking down film to discover the root causes of breakdowns on the pitch.

Much of what you will hear in this column is going to be defensive of the critiques flying around the internet at the moment, mainly because I feel that many are misleading. I annoyingly can’t stop thinking about them. But to a broader point regarding Atlanta United, it’s important to make sure we are finding causation with correlation and to think critically about the way the team performs. It does everyone a disservice to simply say “Atlanta can’t beat good teams” unless we talk about why those struggles have occurred in an attempt to find some truth.

Giving away (late) leads

Saturday afternoon’s match against a resurgent Toronto FC marked the third time this season that Atlanta United has dropped points in the final five minutes of a match. The first occurred May 30 in Foxboro, followed by a Fourth of July disaster in Frisco, Tx.—where the Five Stripes conceded two late goals, and once again Saturday courtesy of Toussaint Rickett’s stoppage time leveler. On top of these three matches, Atlanta has let leads slip in several other matches this season—twice against NYCFC and at home against New York Red Bulls to name a few.

It’s an aggravating feeling to give up a lead, that much we know. But I’d argue that to give up a lead 6 times (which Atlanta has) over the course of 24 games is not an absurd number. That doesn’t mean they can’t improve, but it’s not objectively bad. It’s probably above-average in a salary-capped league like MLS. (*Can anyone find stats on how often the team that scores first wins?)

The problem when trying to come to some sort of definitive conclusion is it’s hard to lump all these instances of late slippages into one bucket. Sometimes it’s a silly penalty committed by Atlanta, sometimes it’s been a failure to deal with a corner, and sometimes it’s just a matter of getting sliced open by a good team like what happened yesterday. There are unique circumstances and variables that surround most of these instances though that need to be taken into account.

Tata Martino needs more from his substitutes

If there’s one consistency among the failures toward the end of games, it’s that the issues often occur after Tata has made his late game substitutes. In several instances, these substitutes have been directly responsible—at least partially so—for the concessions of goals. Against New England, it was substitute Kevin Kratz who committed a foul in the box late in the game. In Dallas, Miles Robinson did not deal well on either of the two late goals Atlanta conceded. Yesterday, while none of the substitutes were directly involved with individual errors, none of them made a significant impact at all after coming on. Romario Williams particularly struggled to hold the ball up and slow the game down when Atlanta needed it most. Tata Martino pointed this out as an issue after the match.

“Everyone’s on the bench because they’re qualified and they’re capable to play when their number’s called. It’s wishful thinking to say that you could choose the perfect moments for every player to come in but that’s not the case. But Brandon (Vasquez), Miles (Robinson) and Romario (Williams), they all went in very decisive points in the game. Guys on the bench they need to be foaming at the mouth like dogs ready to come into the match and provide that kind of energy. Not just to attack but to defend, and the effort and everything that goes along with it.”

This is interesting for a couple reasons. One, it’s the first time I can recall this season Tata “calling out” his players like this in public. Obviously, he will hope to get a reaction. Secondly, it’s interesting because it seems spot on. It’s possible that it’s tough for these players, who are young and inexperienced, to feel confident and decisive than to defer to their experienced teammates.

Josef Martinez scoring all the goals isn’t a flaw

Some seem worried that Josef Martinez’s unheard of goal-scoring rate at the moment is unsustainable. On the surface, that seems true. He has an astonishing 18 goals in Atlanta’s last 12 games, having scored in seven-straight matches and is only one goal away from tying the single season record with 10 matches to play. Since July 1, Martinez has scored more goals than 14 teams in MLS—that’s over half the league.

But again, there’s no reason to be concerned. There’s no reason for me to explain any further when Tata has said it the best anyone could. Here is what he told the Spanish-language media last night, as translated (with editing for clarity) on twitter by Gustavo Rodriguez (@gudaro_ar):

“But ask me how! On the second goal, was he taking a ball from the air, fighting off an entire defense and got a goal? No! There´s ball circulation that ends with Tito waiting for the move, playing a cross, then Josef´s goal. I would be worried if we lump the ball in and let Josef manage himself alone, but this is not the case. Our RW has 8 assists, our LW has 10 assists, we have 20 (sic) assists between them, not even counting Tito´s. Look at Josef´s 26 goals getting 24 assists—analyze that. If Josef is the only scorer, if he gets bad passes…I don´t think so! He gets passes up front from side to side. Truth is, he has big virtues, but there´s also a play circuit that allows Josef to find empty spaces. Otherwise our opponents only would have to keep him away from getting chances. That would be too easy, so they have to move to fill the gaps he is creating for his teammates. Those gaps are created with our ball circulation. Sincerely I don´t mind and I mean it—he won´t stop making goals. There´s no way to neutralize a No. 9 when you have a team that supports our style of play. You look at FC Barcelona—you can’t keep Messi from making 40 goals per season, because there´s a style of play that allows Messi or Suárez to finish in best conditions.

- Tata Martino

Tata should’ve dropped the mic right then and there, but the damned communications staff made him answer a couple more questions.

Kevin Kratz the enigma

Other than his trademark free kicks, what exactly does Kevin Kratz do and why does Tata Martino and his teammates speak so glowingly about him? It can be tough to pinpoint. I’ll be honest, I spent most of the 90 minutes Saturday lamenting how Kratz had basically been a passenger in the game, not seeming to make an obvious impact in the final third or as a defensive shield in front of the back line. I’ve backed off that stance. Kevin Kratz is actually a very valuable player to have in an MLS squad. In a salary-capped roster, it’s nice to have a low-budget option like Kratz, but his skillset specifically suits Atlanta United—a team that like to move the ball from side to side and maintain possession. Kratz allows the team to maintain that style when a regular starter is injured or late in games. He’s not infallible, as documented earlier, but you’d expect that from a player that is on the lower end of the economic scale of the league. It’s just a shame that Atlanta was unable to draw a single foul around the edge of the box from which he could’ve capitalized.