Let’s get this out there right up front. When you live in the Central Time Zone, like me, 7pm Eastern kickoffs midweek really suck. I doubt it’s much better for those ATLiens who don’t work downtown either. This new compressed MLS schedule is for the birds. This season, Atlanta United will play a total of 8 Wednesday night games. That’s near enough a quarter of the season, and doesn’t take into account CCL and Open Cup games also played midweek. Worse, only 3 of those regular season games are at home. Of the road games, 1 was in Vancouver with a 10pm ET kickoff with a road trip to New York that following weekend. Hardly reasonable. Oddly, both games against Toronto FC will be played on Wednesdays, which shows how much respect MLS has for its two most recent champions. The game at BMO Field on June 26th will have an 8pm ET kickoff (because obviously it’s far too warm for Canadians at 7pm in June). That will at least give everyone in Atlanta time to fight through traffic and maybe get a beer in before kickoff. If you can chug real fast, that is. Simply put, midweek games are not good for players, they’re not good for fans, and if you put them on at screwy times they’re not good for TV ratings either.
On the other hand…the What-are-you-talking-about-they-look-nothing-like-Milan’s Stripes are 3-0 in midweek games so far. I’ll take that any day of the week. Even Wednesday. So, rant over.
This one was the 4th all-time meeting between the 2017 debutants, and Atlanta extended its record to 3-1. Somehow, the Loons manage to consistently find ways to embarrass themselves in this match-up. The 6-1 thrashing in what should have been favorable weather has long since gone down in history. They managed to lose at home 1-0 to a 10-man team playing without Leandro Gonzalez Pirez for 52 minutes, and barely managed to beat an exhausted Atlanta B team 3-2, also down to 10 men and using a 4th-string emergency goalkeeper, by scoring twice after 90 minutes.
Wednesday was no different. Ike Opara’s massive defensive howler to gift Josef Martinez a second goal (the most impressive aspect of which was managing to score while laughing hysterically) is obvious, but his poorly deflected clearance on Franco Escobar’s game-winner wasn’t much better.
Tactically, Adrian Heath’s game plan was odd. He set his team up in a 5-3-2 formation. That’s clearly a defensively oriented lineup, and in and of itself it made a lot of sense, given that Atlanta has struggled to penetrate heavy defenses. However, he chose to place Miguel Ibarra and Hassani Dotson at the fullback slots. Both of them are midfielders and Dotson was playing only his second professional game, having been picked 31st overall in the 2019 SuperDraft. Which means they were both essentially playing as withdrawn wingbacks, and what could have been defensive was in a lot of ways designed for the high press. Against an opportunistic and counter-attacking side like Atlanta, that is a risky approach.
For the most part, it worked. Although the home team generated 15 shots with 8 on target, possession was pretty much an even split, and fully 51% of the game was played in the middle third. In fact, Minnesota had a higher xG than Atlanta for most of the game, although how they did that is baffling. They had just 3 shots on target in the game, and all of those were in a 6-second stretch late in the second half (which means they were effectively just one chance).
So the high press was really a medium press, but that didn’t mean Atlanta couldn’t find ways to get over the top. They did, regularly, and one of the ways they did so was by having Dion Pereira school Dotson on the left wing. Dion is about 18 months younger than Dotson, and was making only his second professional start (he played just 23 minutes with Watford in 2 games). After a weakish outing last Friday. Heath may have felt he was an apple ripe for the picking, and was that ever a mistake. Unless, that is, he was expecting Pity Martinez in that position, and may have thought Dotson could handle his lack of speed. Instead, Dion blew right by Dotson all night, and through him with nutmegs on a couple of occasions, getting all the way to the goal line. Pereira pumped 5 balls into the penalty area, and created quality scoring chances.
It didn’t help matters much that Minnesota was rather disorganized. Take a look at the average player positions:
Atlanta’s side is a pretty disciplined 4-2-3-1. The Loons, in contrast, were a mess. Identifying a 5-3-2 pout of that is a challenge. Note that Ibarra (#10) played extremely high, and on the other side Dotson (#31) actually averaged inside his centerback Michael Boxall (#15). They also tried to work through their left, giving Pereira (#28) even more room to work. All told, it was an ineffective game plan that played to Atlanta’s strengths:
Atlanta ended up with 3 clear lines of attack nicely spread out across the field, and achieved better penetration into the box (although not especially great in this case).
In the end, Atlanta came away with another clean sheet win. Thanks to their next opponent, the Chicago Fire, playing DC United to a 3-3 draw Wednesday, the team is now just 3 points off the Eastern Conference lead, is second in PPG and still has games in hand over all the teams ahead of it. And, perhaps most significant, Atlanta now has 7 wins and are in a 4-way tie for the Eastern lead in that stat. That’s key because wins are the first tie-breaker in MLS.
Oh, and that Chicago draw was courtesy of a stoppage time goal by none other than Francisco Calvo, he who got no respect while at Minnesota. Thanks, Frankie, but don’t expect us to be nice on Saturday.
Meanwhile, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match was Ike Opara for his fabulous assists. OK, maybe that’s a bit cold. But the thing is, I’m rather spoiled for choice here. Several players deserve recognition for this one. So, I’m going to give it to Dion Pereira, who I’ve obviously raved about already, and throw Special Mentions out all over the place: Josef Martinez, Franco Escobar, Brad Guzan and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez.
GK: Brad Guzan – 8. Brad recorded 3 saves in this game on his way to a 7th clean sheet. The first was at 73:45. The second was at 73:49. The third was at 73:50. He wasn’t completely out of the game for the remaining 89:55 though. MLS also credits him with a stop at 73:07, when he pushed Miles Robinson’s error out for a corner (although I am fairly sure it wasn’t headed for goal). That was a busy 54 seconds right there.
LB: Michael Parkhurst – 7. 1 tackle and 1 interception through 89 minutes. But as indicated above, they left him alone most of the night.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 8. 4 tackles, 3 interceptions, 4 clearances. Bonus points for continuing after the injury. Additional bonus points for making the white bandage match the uniform colors. Extra additional bonus points for spraying the trainer with a squirt bottle.
CB: Miles Robinson – 6.5. A solid defensive performance despite that error. 4 tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 clearances and 1 block. But he was a tad lucky to see the game out. Referee Alex Chilowicz was clearly in a forgiving mood all game, and never more so than when he handed Miles a yellow.
RB: Franco Escobar – 7.5. A really good game spoiled just a bit by the yellow card. In additional to the goal he racked up 3 tackles, 1 interception and 1 clearance.
LDM: Eric Remedi – 7. Not a stand-out game for Eric, again in part because of Minnesota’s preference for the left wing. 60 passes for 93.3% accuracy, which is almost Nagbeesque...
RDM: Darlington Nagbe – 7. 61 passes, 96.7% accuracy. Literally controlled the midfield: almost all of those passes were in the middle third.
LM: Dion Pereira – 9. Frank de Boer has already done an excellent job developing Miles Robinson. Is Dion his next project? We shall see.
CAM: Julian Gressel – 8. A quietly strong game for Julian, who was due for one. He took 4 shots in the game, with 2 on target. And, of course, the assist on Josef’s first goal, which was a beautiful and intelligent through ball. Exited in the third minute of second half stoppage time.
RM: Pity Martinez – 7. Still struggling to find his form, but I think he’s getting there. 2 shots, 1 on frame. left in the 81st minute for a defensive switch.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 8. The second goal was a gift of staggering generosity. But the first was a brilliant piece of individual play. After last Friday, the team tailor was probably relieved.
SUB: Florentin Pogba – 7. Came on, and probably surprised everyone except FdB that he replaced Pity, not LGP. Chalked up 1 clearance and 1 block in 9 official minutes.
SUB: Brek Shea – 6. came on late to give Parky a brief rest, but like that worthy had very little to do.
SUB: Jeff Larentowicz – N/R. There were still 4 minutes to play when he came on, but the game was essentially already over.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 8. More formation shuffling. I guess that’s what total football is all about. Sucker punched Adrian Heath by starting Pereira at left mid.
HEADGEAR – 5. Ike Opara was wearing one, LGP wasn’t. Opara threw his on the ground. He could at least have offered it to LGP instead.