OK, a disclaimer: I wasn’t in Atlanta this weekend, and didn’t get to see the game live from the start. The first thing I saw live was Ezequiel Barco being subbed in (followed immediately by a surprising ad break, which made me think I had pressed a wrong button on my remote). I didn’t get to see the rest of the game until much later. Thus, I may have a somewhat rosier opinion on the performance than others might.
However, rosier is a relative term, and does not imply any great degree of rosiness. “Less jaundiced” might perhaps be more accurate.
Most of us expected the I-must-have-a-concussion-I-see-more-than-five Stripes to go into the international break on a high, playing the only Eastern Conference team without a point and coming off a strong showing against Monterrey in midweek. A come-from-behind draw was not what we wanted.
But consider this: Atlanta has played 7 games in 24 days (25 calendar days, but the kick-off times work out to 24 24-hour periods). Only the New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City have endured similar schedules. Even the Houston Dynamo got one more day than that. United has not had a similar stretch of games since the opening on Mercedes Benz Stadium in September 2017, when the team played 8 games in the same time. But 7 of those were at home. Only 4 of the current stretch were, and the travel distances weren’t exactly short. Granted, the other three US CCL teams are doing better in MLS so far, but they also all had a longer off-season (considerably longer in Houston’s case, who didn’t even make the playoffs) and none have a new coach. And none of them lost the 2018 MVP runner-up.
Throw in yet more lineup and formation tweaks, and the rough start is not too surprising. Disappointing and frustrating, yes, but not surprising. The question is: can the team get over it, and does a two-week break help them do that? Brad Guzan spoke on the difficulties after the game, and he’s not wrong.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what went wrong in this game. Atlanta controlled a massive 71.4% of the possession, but did absolutely nothing with it. The team didn’t take a shot until the 36th minute and didn’t get one on target until the 64th, and had just two for the game. There were several good chances, though, including Josef’s shot to the crossbar and a fingertip save by Andre Blake (who in my opinion got incredibly lucky with a late studs-up challenge on Josef Martinez). But Philly had already had 2 shots before Atlanta’s first, and were only outshot 12-11 for the entire game. They even had a higher xG (1.66) than Atlanta’s (1.32) despite having only 28.6% possession.
The heatmap says it all:
Possession may be a good thing, but possession in your defensive half with no penetration into the attacking third is pretty much useless. Frank de Boer wants his team to play this kind of style, but until they can figure out how to get past opposing defenses without them bunkering at the halfway line, we’re not going to see much of an improvement.
This may be why FdB’s system doesn’t seem to have worked outside of the Netherlands. The Eredivisie is not known for its stellar defending. It’s an attacking league. Jozy Altidore scored 36 goals in 67 games with AZ Alkmaar, after all. FdB’s next stop after Ajax, Serie A, is the polar opposite (it’s the only unflashy thing about Italy). At Crystal Palace he didn’t have a prayer regardless of formation, and EPL defenses are generally rock solid. MLS teams also tend to build good defenses more effectively than good offenses. So, when the team dropped out of the 3-4-3 into a 4-3-3 late in the first half, the quality of the attack picked up almost instantaneously.
Has FdB scrapped the 3-4-3? Possibly. But we won’t find out for two weeks. However, we won’t be starved of Atlanta-related action over the international break. Tito Villalba and Miguel Almiron are on Paraguay’s roster against Mexico at Levi’s Stadium on Tuesday 3/26 in a doubtless tearful reunion with Tata Martino. And the Martinezes will face off against each other on Friday 3/22 in Madrid (apparently all Argentinian soccer games are now being played in Spain).
With much to chew on, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match was easy this time: Miles Robinson. That’s three straight awards, and I don’t think anyone has done that before, least of all a defender. Miles turned 22 3 days before the game. His increased playing time and the effective use he has made of it absolutely justify his U-23 national team call-up (he is also eligible to play at the Tokyo Olympics next year). Special Mention goes to Ezequiel Barco for his impressive off-the-bench performance.
GK: Brad Guzan – 5. Brad had just 3 shots on target to deal with during the game. The first was Fafa Picault’s attempt that was cleared by Robinson (and was likely offside, although we will never know). The second was the goal by Brenden Aaronson, on which he was completely wrong-footed. Having watched the replay numerous times I don’t think there was a deflection off LGP, so he doesn’t get that excuse. The only save he made was in the 88th minute, again on a Picault attempt to save the point.
LB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 5.5. Yet another yellow card for LGP. That and getting badly nutmegged by an 18-year-old rather offset his tally of 3 tackles, 4 interceptions and 2 clearances (which given Philly’s possession he should not have been able to rack up).
CB: Michael Parkhurst – 5. If anyone has suffered the fixture congestion and lineup shuffling fatigue more than Parky, I’m not sure who that might be. Played just 59 minutes, in which he got just 1 tackle.
RB: Miles Robinson – 8. The only thing Miles has not done yet this season is get himself a cool nickname. Suggestions please. But lay off the Simon & Garfunkel references.
For the record: 2 tackles, 1 interception, 3 clearances and 1 block.
LWB: Eric Remedi – 6. A rather invisible evening for Eric, although he had an impressive 91.3% passing accuracy (he was 3rd in passes completed behind LGP and Parky).
LHM: Darlington Nagbe – 6. Nagbe was pretty solid in midfield, but again struggled to create anything. As usual his passing accuracy was sky-high at 94.1%, but look at his passing map:
Mostly short high-percentage plays with little forward penetration.
RHM: Jeff Larentowicz – 6. Not a bad night from Jeff, who was solid defensively (2 tackles, 1 interception and 2 clearances). Offensively, he had one shot that missed from 6 yards out right before half time (his claims for a corner went unheeded, probably correctly). Left the game in the 79th minute.
RWB: Julian Gressel – 7. Another game, another assist. Of Atlanta’s 8 goals so far this season, Julian has scored 2 and assisted on 2. His importance to this team cannot be overstated.
LM: Pity Martinez – 5. Another ineffectual game for Pity, who probably needs rest more than anyone else on the squad. Unfortunately, as noted above, he’s not going to get it unless he flies first class to Spain.
RM: Tito Villalba – 5. Likewise ineffective in a rare start. Pulled after 67 minutes.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 7. So close, twice. But there’s no one on this team who will put out more effort than Josef.
SUB: Brek Shea – 5. Meh. One good game from Brek this season, otherwise, not so much.
SUB: Ezequiel Barco – 7. Came in for Tito and provided an immediate spark, not to mention a brilliant goal (which with the hair and the vertical leap I initially thought was Josef)
SUB: Andrew Carleton – 6. Replaced Jeff. Provided some creativity. He has 2 MLS appearances already this season, bringing his total to 10.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 6. Needs to get things sorted out pretty quickly at this point. The front office may be willing to show patience, but the fans are running out of theirs.
FOX SPORTS SOUTH: – 0. C’mon guys, you can do way better than that.