Frank de Boer has figured out MLS. At least he’s figured out how to beat awful teams in MLS. Atlanta United is riding a five game win streak and has won six of the last seven games which is impressive, but they’ve also beaten some trash teams in that stretch. New England and Colorado were (are) so bad that they fired their managers. Sporting Kansas City was (and is) injured but Peter Vermes is (and was) stubbornly throwing his attack forward at the expense of his goalkeeper’s well being. Toronto FC rotated, has a shoddy defense and one good player who teams are marking out of games. Orlando City is every inch the embarrassing fail-club they’ve always been. Vancouver is stocking up on children’s Tylenol and Kleenex after putting two shots on target at home against a rotated backline with Brek Shea playing left back because Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez offended their North American soccer sensibilities. Throw in the moral victory against FC Dallas and the last seven games have been pretty good.
That’s 18 of the 20 points Atlanta has and all six wins. Impressed? You should be! Atlanta can’t do anything about the schedule and the fact that the East has fallen off so badly isn’t their fault. Those are wins and have come at exactly the right time and as of this writing Atlanta is in 3rd in the East - a month ago they were in dead last.
Frank de Boer may have figured something else out. He doesn’t need the ball to dominate possession (what am I going to do for the galaxy brain section?). I’m not going to get too into the stats, xG, possession percentage, whatever, that’s not my sandbox and people who didn’t embarrass themselves on the math part of the GRE should talk about that until I decide that I want to talk about it again - I want to talk about the team’s performance.
In short the defense has been splendid. In those six wins Atlanta allowed zero goals - zero - and has allowed two in the last seven games. It has been incredible to see how the transformation has worked. Rather than being a marauding attacking side, Atlanta is taking its chances more cautiously with the front four trying to work the ball into the box for a shot or with Pity or Tito corking one off from distance. There’s not much of a press so there isn’t a risk of it getting broken and the defenders aren’t dealing with being on their heels if that happens. The result is a team that is scoring less but letting in less goals - a true less is more situation.
Against Vancouver that worked with Pity having the freedom to try and create a perfect pass and forgoing his defensive responsibilities as a true enganche, Josef drifting into midfield to try and facilitate attacks, Justin Meram trying to get settled into a new system until Julian Gressel was ready to play, and Tito Villalba doing what he loves to do most - run really, really fast and try to score brilliant, thrilling goals, but not doing that most of the time because he was running too fast and soccer is hard. In the end, Atlanta’s play forced Vancouver to make a stupid foul, Josef scored a penalty, the attack forced Maxime Crepeau to make an amazing triple save, and the backline never seemed the least bit bothered by the mighty Fredy Montero. All in all, it’s a pretty good showing on the road in MLS after a 53 hour plane ride and dealing with ruthlessly polite customs officials.
New Red Bulls, new problems
Speaking of remote, far flung corners of the American soccer landscape that are hard to get to and stand on the verge of irrelevance, Atlanta United is going to New Jersey this weekend. Yes, New York has never lost to Atlanta in the regular season. Yes, New York won the Supporters’ Shield in 2018 and Atlanta didn’t. No, New York has never beaten Atlanta in a playoff series. And no, New York did not get a big parade for winning the Supporters’ Shield, no matter how important MLS analysts say winning the trophy is.
The Red Bulls are struggling. They were gently ushered out the Concacaf Champions League when they were mercy killed by Santos Laguna. In 11 games, they are 4-2-5 and sit in 9th in the table. It seems like all of the constant change and risk/reward calculus the team had been making the right bets on over the years has finally caught up with them. Tyler Adams is gone; he was a unicorn in MLS in terms of being a designated player level talent on a homegrown contract, Jesse Marsch is the best American coach in the world and he’s on his way to try and qualify for the Champions League, meanwhile Bradley Wright-Phillips is still on the roster but has stopped scoring, Sean Davis is not nearly as good as Adams, and Chris Armas - noted guy who blew it with his playoff tactics - hasn’t figured out what to do.
Until the last four games the best shot the team had taken was when Kaku rocketed a ball into a fan’s face in Kansas City. A truly shameful act that was only eclipsed by the league giving him a tepid three game suspension. But in those four games, the Red Bulls have won three. They haven’t really been convincing wins, the scoring is inconsistent, the team doesn’t have a starting striker, and without Adams the press isn’t working so the backline is being exposed as leakier than it was last year. Still, they’re climbing the table and Atlanta will want to put a stop to it.
The known unknowns and the unknown unknowns
Wow, what a turn of events over the past month. Things went from - we don’t know what Atlanta is, they can’t score, everything is bad - to Atlanta has figured out a different look and it’s working great. But, there is something I can’t shake - those are six awful teams and to really find out if the tactics are working Atlanta will have to play someone good to officially get the creeping sense of “the team might be frauds actually” out of my head. I mean, are we just the Columbus Crew from the start of the year now where luck is playing more of a role in the results than tactics or good coaching?
While the defense has been really, really good, there were some panic inducing moments against Orlando but disaster was avoided because Dom Dwyer is bad at soccer. So, before crowning FdB the Jose Mourinho of MLS, let’s see what happens when Atlanta plays this weekend, goes to RSL and then hosts Minnesota and Chicago before making conclusions (and then watch as FdB decides to change his entire approach during the Gold Cup break).
As far as this game it seems like de Boer is going to ride these tactics for the time being. That said, there might be some changes in the lineup. New York is bad now, but Michael Parkhurst was probably rested to start this game and Darlington Nagbe should be back in the XI also. After Pogba had a pretty solid showing in Vancouver he might, maybe, start next to Miles Robinson to give LGP a break. Justin Meram was fine but Gressel should start again. One question mark might be if Dion Pereira starts over Tito Villalba, the youngster can play and might give New York an unexpected and unknown player to defend. In any case, the players FdB starts will probably try to impose their defensive style on New York and win another 1-0 game. Three points is three points.
1-0 is the perfect score in soccer
There’s sort of a weird conversation about Atlanta’s recent run of form. The team is winning, its defense has been dominant with one or two exceptions and it seems like this is an effective strategy. But is it?
I think it is too early to tell what Atlanta will be in its final form at the end of the year. The team wasn’t scoring a lot to start the season and perhaps FdB decided if the attack wasn’t clicking he would build a solid foundation with the defense and rely on it until the goals materialized. They haven’t yet but 0 goals allowed in five games straight is incredible, even against the dross Atlanta has been playing.
The actual preview part of the article
Come Sunday it won’t matter what Atlanta’s identity was or will be. What matters is how they play against the New York Red Bulls. There’s every reason to think that the team can beat NYRB but the story of the game is... really unexpected. Rather than talking about Atlanta having to deal with being pressed and if the defensive lapses that cost them when these teams played in the regular season last year show up again, we’re talking about Atlanta’s defense. Will it keep working? It has been, but I still have that weird feeling about being “frauds actually” bouncing around in my head.