If there is one thing that Tata Martino clearly does not believe in it is squad rotation. As far as it applies to MLS, that is generally not a bad philosophy, given that depth is painfully lacking under the league’s arcane roster rules. We’ve seen it accrue to Atlanta United’s benefit in this current stretch of games, with Sporting KC, Toronto FC and Orlando City all shuffling their lineups due to injury or schedule compression and ending up on the short end. Of course, Toronto now apparently need a minimum of 37 shots in order to score, but that’s a different matter…
Anyway, on Wednesday Frank de Boer proved that rotation doesn’t have to end in disaster. He left Michael Parkhurst and Darlington Nagbe at home. Julian Gressel and Miles Robinson started on the bench, and Florentin Pogba and Justin Meram got their first Atlanta starts. 4 changes to the team that started against Orlando. A gutsy call by FdB.
But it worked. 2 of those changes were on the defense, which made it even riskier. But Shea played easily his best game in a Hoops-are-ugly-we-like Stripes shirt and Pogba proved why Atlanta hired him. The team managed just 45.5% possession (the lowest since Week1 against DC) and just 421 passes (second lowest on the season after the New England game).
That sounds like a defensive game, but it really wasn’t. United tallied 17 shots, which is high in and of itself, but adjusted for possession it was the second-best output of the season (0.42 shots per minute of possession; the best was 0.46 against Toronto). 6 of those were on target, also good for second best on an adjusted basis (0.15 vs. 0.16 against SKC).
And Vancouver was completely unable to make any effective use of its possession. They technically had 1 shot in the first half, a blocked attempt by Felipe from extreme distance in the 3rd minute. They finished with just 5 shots and 2 on target, neither of which were especially troublesome to Brad Guzan.
Defensively, they weren’t much better, and hardly helped their own cause, giving up a penalty that even Baldomero Toledo had no hesitation in calling. Worse, it was committed by Lass Bangoura, who had to track all the way back from a forward position in order to run right over Pity Martinez’ back.
29% of the game was played in Vancouver’s defensive third, slightly more than in Atlanta’s. And the penetration into that last was hardly threatening:
That big hole at the top of Atlanta’s penalty area? From Vancouver’s perspective that would be the much prized zone 14, the “golden square”. The Whitecaps attack was so weak in the final third that the visitors didn’t even have to defend it. And at the other end, Atlanta’s penetration into Vancouver’s 18 was far deeper than we have seen in almost every game so far this year. Atlanta also had little activity in their own zone 14, but it looks like they just ran right around it.
Granted, Atlanta scored just the one goal, and that from the spot, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The team’s xG for the game was 2.00 (Vancouver managed a miserable 0.33), which is fairly high, and Maxime Crépeau also had something to say about the matter. But when you haven’t allowed a goal in 366 minutes, one is all you need.
5 games, 5 clean sheets, 5 wins. So not only did the squad turn, but the season is also turning. United are now on 20 points, 3 behind the Philadelphia Union (who are probably the biggest surprise of this season so far, and that 1-1 draw back in Week 3 isn’t looking so bad any more, is it?), who have played 1 more game, and 4 back of DC United, who have played 2 more games.
One more quick turnaround, and the New York Red Bulls await Sunday evening (if you haven’t heard, kickoff has been pushed back from 1pm ET to 5pm ET). And then a whopping 4 days off before heading back west to Rio Tinto. The frequent flyer miles are piling up. After that, though, it will be 33 days before the next road trip.
Without further ado, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
I had a very hard time deciding on Man of the Match honors for this game. I was tempted to award them the the entire back line as a group. However, Florentin Pogba had a standout game and he gets the nod. But Franco Escobar, Lenadro Gonzalez PIrez and Brek Shea all deserve the strongest of Special Mentions.
GK: Brad Guzan – 7. Spent 53 minutes watching the Whitecaps do absolutely nothing. Made 2 routine saves over the next 2½ minutes, then went back to eating his poutine and smoked meat.
LB: Brek Shea – 8. As noted, his best outing yet for Atlanta. 1 shot from close range that was blocked, and defensively 1 tackle and 3 interceptions. Took the Vancouver crowd until way deep inn the second half to remember who he was and start booing.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 8. 1 interception and 8 clearances. And more importantly, a 5th straight game with no cards, meaning his accumulation is down to just 2.
CB: Florentin Pogba – 9. Just 1 interception and 2 clearances, but as discussed above, Vancouver didn't even try to get past him and LGP in the central defense. He had 49 passes for 91.8% accuracy, although his longer balls tended to be struck overly hard, and even got a shot on target.
RB: Franco Escobar – 8. I’m not going to ding him for the yellow card, because it was ludicrously soft. 4 tackles, 3 interceptions and 3 clearances. Vancouver reasonably opted to attempt to get past the only guy on Atlanta’s back line under 6 feet. It didn’t work.
LDM: Jeff Larentowicz – 7. 1 tackle, 3 clearances and 3 blocked shots. Another big guy playing on the left side defensively. Were they blocking the light?
RDM: Eric Remedi – 6.5. Picked up a yellow card. Eric wasn’t called on at all to defend. He had 1 off-target shot, and completed 85.7% of 49 passes.
LM: Justin Meram – 6. Not a stellar performance in his first Atlanta start, but he is still unfamiliar with his teammates. 3 shots, none on frame, and a rather anemic 22 passes for 68.2% accuracy. Left after 64 minutes.
CAM: Pity Martinez – 7. Another good game for Pity. He drew the foul that led to the only score, had a 90.9% completion rate on 33 passes. Surprisingly, only 2 shots, 1 on target. Rested after 82 minutes.
RM: Tito Villalba – 7. Tito would have had a great game if his finishing wasn’t off. He had just 1 off-target shot, and his final passes would have created good chances if they had connected. They didn’t. Pulled in the 69th minute.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 8. Led the game with 5 shots, 2 of which were on target and of course the only goal.
SUB: Julian Gressel – 6. Came on for Meram, and wasn’t much better. 1 off-target shot and little else.
SUB: Dion Pereira – 7. Switched in for Tito in an early bus-parking manoeuver. I want to see more of this kid, because he looks fun.
SUB: Miles Robinson – 7. His first non-90 game of the year, and brought on in place of Pity as a second bus, making the back line even more insanely tall. Actually had a clearance.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 8. Happy birthday to the gaffer. Sorry you had to spend it in Canada.
BC PLACE: – 0. Whoever thought that adding a retractable roof that takes forever to close to a stadium in a town nicknamed Rain City was a good idea?