In its brief history, Atlanta United has played 82 competitive games. In 13 of those, the team failed to score, drawing 4 and losing 10 (no, that’s not a typo). Only twice has it failed to score in consecutive games. Obviously, the past two games is the second instance. The first instance was the 2017 playoff game against Columbus (a draw and a loss) followed by the 4-0 trouncing at Houston the next season. So it doesn’t really count.
The Stripes-in-need-of-an-abacus are in unfamiliar territory then. Nearly as importantly, so are their loyal fans. But there is not yet any reason to freak out. Thus, if you are feeling undue stress and anxiety, read on, and be reassured.
In light of the tragedy that happened in Lee County in my home state of Alabama last week, I hesitated to use this metaphor, but what transpired Wednesday evening in Monterrey was a perfect storm of factors converging to an inevitable result. Let’s consider them in turn.
1. Superior Opposition.
Atlanta fans are used at this point to dominating opponents (DC United notwithstanding). This was the club’s first ever game against a Liga MX team, and a good one to boot. Right now Monterrey are, if not the best team in Mexico, a close second (after Tigres UANL). The gap is certainly narrowing, but like it or not, Liga MX is still the best league in North America. Monterrey was an experience like no other Atlanta United has undergone to this point.
Atlanta’s off-season lasted just 74 days. Pity Martinez’ off-season (after the Club World Cup) lasted just 60 days. That’s not a lot of rest for a team that played 41 games the prior season.
Worse, the current season’s schedule has been a killer so far. MLS did Atlanta no favors by scheduling them as the prime time game Sunday evening on the road. So, back home, rest day, travel day, game day. Hardly much opportunity to recover and adjust tactics for a new opponent, which presumably Frank de Boer and his staff also had little time to scout. Moreover, Atlanta has to play its home opener this weekend sandwiched in between the two legs of the CCL tie (for comparison, Toronto FC was given this weekend off last year in support of its CCL campaign).
So, we had a team still more or less in pre-season form against a juggernaut in mid-season stride. Not a recipe for success.
3. Injuries/Squad depth
The injury to George Bello probably didn’t really affect matters much, as he likely would not have played anyway. But the continuing recuperation of Franco Escobar and the injury to Julian Gressel were huge problems almost impossible to overcome. A lack of depth at right back/wingback pretty much forced the selection of Mikey Ambrose to play in a position he had already shown himself ill-equipped for.
By his absence, Gressel demonstrated just how key a player he is for Atlanta. Gressel played and started all but one MLS game last season. The one he missed was May 9th against Sporting Kansas City. The result? A 2-0 loss. He went the full 90 in all but three games, missing just 25 official minutes in those games.
4. New coach/new system
Some strange lineup and substitution decisions notwithstanding, blame cannot at this time be fairly placed on Frank de Boer. He has not exactly had a lot of time to acquaint himself with the personnel at his disposal, nor have that personnel had much time to familiarize themselves with his philosophy and system. His understanding of North American soccer is also understandably lacking. Some weak performances should therefore not be all that surprising. FdB was the victim of ludicrous impatience at Inter and Crystal Palace; Atlanta should not follow suit.
5. A cynical Monterrey game plan
In the MLS regular season last year Atlanta suffered an average of 11.7 fouls per game. In the 3 prior games this season, the average has been 12.7 fouls per game. Monterrey committed a staggering 26 fouls in this game (one every 3 minutes 28 seconds). 10 of those were on Pity Martinez alone (granted, he did rather expertly draw a few). Eric Remedi and Ezequiel Barco got 4 each. That’s getting CONCACAF’d big time. Atlanta is used to playing a fluid game; this took them out of that completely.
That aside, the game was generally poorly played. Neither team looked in rhythm, especially in the first half. Incomplete and intercepted passes were the flavor of the day. Inaccuracy continued in the goalmouth, too: in the first half, the teams combined for 8 shots, of which just 1 (other than the PK) was on target). Atlanta was lucky to get out of the first half down only 1-0 though, and came out in the second half looking for a while as if they could at least make that scoreline stand. But then around the 75th minute the wheels fell off. Which makes Frank de Boer’s decision to delay his substitutions confusing.
All in, then, a disaster in the making. Barring a miracle, United’s CCL dreams will need to be postponed a year. Let’s look ahead to Sunday to get some frustration out on FC Cincinnati, and then to Wednesday for either closure or redemption. Beyond that, I counsel patience. There has been far less than sufficient time to assess the state of the team. We may have to roll with the punches for a while until things settle down.
And so, the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Let’s face it, no one was really all that good Wednesday. So Man of the Match honors carry little prestige this time. Nonetheless, they are awarded to Pity Martinez for a valiant effort. No Special Mentions though; I’m not overly concerned with this performance, but I’m not feeling charitable either.
GK: Brad Guzan – 5. Obviously not at fault for the PK (which I think he got fingertips to), but looked shaky at times. Not his best outing by far. Managed 2 saves to keep the score from getting completely out of hand.
LB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 3.5. As if giving up the PK (that admittedly might not have been given in MLS) with a pointless foul wasn’t enough, LGP later picked up his second CCL yellow card and will miss the return leg.
CB: Miles Robinson – 6. Dropped into the centerback role again, Miles continued the strong start to this season. Strong is, of course, a relative term.
RB: Michael Parkhurst – 4.5. Pushed out to right back again for unexplained reasons. Looked out of sorts and picked up a rare yellow card.
LWB: Brek Shea – 4. OK, so Brek had one good outing against Herediano, but was utterly ineffective the past two games. This is a week he is going to want to forget.
LHM: Darlington Nagbe – 5. Nagbe tried to do his distribution thing, but it just wasn’t working.
RHM: Eric Remedi – 5.5. Got a yellow, which is rather expected of players in his role. Tried valiantly to control the midfield, but to no avail. Left in the first minute of stoppage time.
LWB: Mikey Ambrose – 4. Were Mikey a natural right wing I would rate him lower. However I am loath to be overly harsh on a player called on to perform so completely out of his normal position. As discussed above, depth at right wing/back is sorely lacking on this roster, and his depth is what Mikey was definitely out of.
LM: Pity Martinez – 6. Of those 10 fouls, 6 were in the second half, and 3 were after the 70th minute. Left in the 90th minute, and should have been pulled far earlier.
RM: Ezequiel Barco – 5. Still trying to figure how to play in this system, and was not great on the night.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 4. Probably for the first time in an Atlanta shirt, Josef had no shots in the game. For those keeping count, he had no offsides either. This is not a coincidence.
SUB: Jeff Larentowicz – 5. Came on very late for Pity Martinez and did very little in a games that was effectively already over.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 5. Came on in stoppage time. Also did essentially nothing.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 4. FdB is clearly struggling to make things work at Atlanta, but those struggles aren’t going to get any easier if he keeps making strange decisions.
THOSE LARGE FRIENDLY LETTERS: – 10. Here they are (extra points to anyone who knows which famous ex-soccer player has a connection to them):