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Prekrap: Atlanta United at Real Salt Lake - please score a goal

We’re not in Kansas anymore

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The thing about 1-0 being the most ideal and sublime expression of soccer is that you have to score the goal and not let the other team score it. Atlanta United didn’t do that against the NYRB and The Best Fans In Soccer will probably never let us forget about it while pretending that this never happened.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Rob expressed the overall dismay at the outcome and it’s totally inexcusable that a team with the South American Player of the Year and record breaking MLS Golden Boot holder couldn’t score one goal against NYRB’s backup center backs.

If there’s a theme to the Prekrap - an essence of my brand as I have tirelessly and intentionally tried to cultivate it - it is that I have to write a preview for something that I don’t know the outcome of and am usually wrong, but also kinda right? It’s important that Atlanta’s defense is good, but the Five Stripes aren’t scoring goals. Losing to a 10 man side is the most pure evidence of that whatever an xG chart says. This has to change, Atlanta has three games in the next eight days against some of the most absolutely awful teams in MLS defensively and if they don’t score more than 1.08 goals per game in that stretch the Gold Cup break will need to be a time of deep reflection in the importance of doing the thing that wins games in this sport.

Real Salt Lackluster

In another universe, Jesse Marsch never takes over the Red Bulls and Mike Petke is still their manager. In that timeline, we might be talking about how Atlanta ran roughshod over a shambolic defense but the competent attack of the home team was good enough to break Atlanta’s shutout streak. Instead we’re talking about how Atlanta should be able to run roughshod over a shambolic defense but the competent attack of the home team is probably good enough to stop Atlanta from starting another shutout streak.

That timeline assumes that Atlanta’s manager can get the team to do some roughshoding, but lately the horse hasn’t been anywhere near the old town road (see what I did there?).

Last year RSL rode some momentum into the playoffs and shocked LAFC. They didn’t exactly pick up where they left off as they lost four of their first six games followed by going 3-3 in their next half dozen matches. For now, Real Salt Lake is settling into their typical mid-season mediocrity as they sit in 7th place in the West. Their defense is bad with an average goals allowed of 1.6. The team features 22 year-old center back Justen Glad who has been supposed to be the future Chad Marshall since he was 16, but he hasn’t reached that level of monotony just yet. On the other side of the generational spectrum is Nick Rimando who is holding on for a final season of allowing 50+ goals in a season.

That said, their attack is good and RSL tries to play a dynamic style with Albert Rusnak pulling the strings as a no. 10 in a 4-2-3-1. The team just beat Toronto 3-0, a team Atlanta shut down in no small part due to Eric Remedi marking their no. 10 out of the game - a tactic that Frank de Boer may deploy against RSL. That all balances out to a team that is capable of finishing either just inside or outside of the playoff spots. They should come at Atlanta and try to play an open game, how the Five Stripes respond to that will largely determine the outcome of the match.

Less an enganche and more a policía acostado

OK, the attack is not good and the defense got caught sleeping once against New York. Oddly enough, until the red card the game was fairly back and forth and it seemed like Josef Martinez was getting in behind the Red Bulls’ backline and coming a cat’s hair away from knocking a goal into the net. All of that went out of the window when Tim Parker walked off of the field and then Tom Berenger or whoever scored the game winner for NYRB.

Simply put the team needs to do better. I don’t know if it’s the tactics - not pressing takes some of the edge off of the backline but if Atlanta can only score one goal a game that advantage is nullified - or the individual performances just aren’t enough. Pity is struggling to adjust, Tito hasn’t been as effective this year as in the past, and FdB seems to have replaced the press and create in transition tactic led by Miguel Almiron with possession. In turn he’s using Josef as more of a false nine and Josef seems suited for the role, but that means his goal scoring production has to come from somewhere else and it isn’t coming from Josef shooting from further away than he was last year.

Peaking of Pity, it’s fun to say enganche and to write enganche and have whimsical dreams about Pity Martinez being the MLS version of Juan Ramon Riquelme, but it is not fun to watch him play soccer outside of one or two games this year. On occasion he has a nice pass that comes off, but his lack of work when not in possession is horrendous. Riquelme could get away with being a luxury player because he was Juan Ramon Riquelme, Pity isn’t there yet and until he is his workrate must improve or his shots need to start being on target.

At a certain point, and again this is coming as the team has won five of the last six, looking around and asking “What’s different about the attack this year?” becomes an exercise that leads to answers involving the team’s manager and new designated player. If they can’t take responsibility for getting Atlanta to improve their performances, the only trophy that Atlanta United will be holding over its heads in 2019 will be the imaginary one that Tito hoisted last weekend.

Nil satis nisi optimum

This tweet threw me into an existential crisis on Sunday.

Obviously I am an Atlanta United fan, but I’m also an Everton supporter. It’s not something that I’m proud of, however, as someone who is also a lifelong Cubs fan since birth a team that wallows in mediocrity despite having the resources to change things and doesn’t because of its own stupid intransigence was really appealing to me when I decided to pick an EPL team to follow.

On one hand, the crisis arose because it raises the question: am I really an Orlando City fan? I checked and can spell my own name, am not wearing jorts, nor am I inexplicably sticky or in the back of a police car - so I’m not an Orlando City fan. But I can see exactly why Everton and Orlando are the same thing while also taking heart in knowing that Roger Bennett would never support the team from America’s bottom.

So what’s going on? What’s making me feel so much like what I love is letting me down in a completely unexpected and yet somehow inevitable way? IS THAT BRAD GUZAN IN GOAL OR TIM HOWARD? I realized it provoked another question, one I am scared to answer: What if... Atlanta hired Frank de Boer thinking they were getting Johan Cruyff but actually got Ronald Koeman?

The similarities are uncanny - Everton went from being led by a high-flying attack minded Spanish speaking coach whose next job was with an underachieving national team and hired Koeman who downplayed expectations as the team played to his wan demeanor. Obviously, the major similarity between Koeman and de Boer is that they’re both Dutch and in no way does that explain what’s happening with Atlanta United. Still, I can’t help feel a little bit like I’m watching my beloved Toffees flail around helplessly at times when I watch the Five Stripes this year.

The best or nothing?

I’d been repeating that either it will work or it won’t - I think we can say that as far as going forward it isn’t working. RSL has a bad defense, is anchored by an MLS fossil and has a declining and worse option in goal. The past two seasons I’d be gloating about how the Five Stripes should hang a pile of goals on a team like RSL and that it would be surprising if the attack wasn’t at least keeping them on their heels all game. This time, it would be surprising if that is what the attack did so the best anyone can hope for is that Atlanta scores one goal and then shuts down RSL on Friday night.