For about two hours Saturday evening, Atlanta United found itself back in its natural place – that is, at the top of the Eastern Conference standings. Later, DC United tied the San Jose Earthquakes 1-1 for a 1-point edge, and on Sunday a late 2-1 game-winner by the Philadelphia Union over Minnesota United put them 2 points ahead of Atlanta. Even so, 3rd place at not quite the midpoint of the season after such a rough start is solid.
It was a tough row to hoe. At kickoff at 9pm on Sunday, May 5th, Atlanta had just 8 points from its first 6 games. At the final whistle at 8pm Saturday, June 1st, 26 days and 23 hours later, the team had added 18 points from 8 games, or 2.25 points per game. Only one team did better than Atlanta since the beginning of May: the New York Red Bulls, who earned 16 points from 7 games (2.27 PPG) (including 3 at the expense of the good guys). The New Yorkers have dug themselves out of a similar rough start to the year: Atlanta lost Miguel Almiron to Europe, New York lost Tyler Adams to Europe. Atlanta played in CCL, New York played in CCL. Tata Martino moved on to Mexico, Chris Armas stayed in New York.
However, the Red Bulls remain 2 points behind United on the same number of games, and have 1 less win. Coming up, the Red Bulls play the Union next Saturday, in a game ripe with implications for Atlanta.
United have earned a 25-day break from action. The exhausting month was capped off in some style with the win over the Chicago Fire. The Fire came into the Benz with perhaps its best team since Atlanta have been in the league, and played a fairly strong game. They had the upper hand in possession (52.7%), better passing accuracy in all phases of the game, and managed to force 28% of the play in Atlanta’s defensive third. It didn’t do them much good. Chicago failed in 3 critical areas. First, their shooting was abysmal. Either they managed to entirely miss the net from easy positions, or fired the ball directly at Brad Guzan. Second, here’s the heat map:
We’ve seen this before from Frank de Boer’s defense: the opponent is kept out of zone 14. In this case, almost entirely.
The 3rd problem was organization, both defensively and offensively, but more so in the latter. We saw in the game against Minnesota how disciplined Atlanta was in maintaining formation; it was even more obvious against Chicago:
Atlanta’s 4-2-3-1 is clear. Chicago was supposedly in a 4-3-3. This looks more like a 4-1-1-1-1-1-1. Not conducive to scoring success.
Moreover, Atlanta has morphed into a defensive juggernaut. The At-this-point-it-really-ought-to-be-zero Stripes have allowed just 11 goals so far, least in the league on an absolute basis and per game (0.73 per game). Only Los Angeles FC are even close. This despite having ongoing injury problems on the back line and continual shuffling of the assignments. Say what you will about Frank de Boer, but it is evident he has vastly improved this aspect of Atlanta’s game.
Not that Atlanta is too shabby on the scoring front either, at least not recently. Granted, United is not scoring at the prolific pace of 2018, but when you are locking the opponent out entirely, you don’t need to. Nevertheless, Atlanta is shooting at an average of 14.6 per game, with 5.1 on target. That’s plenty for a counter-attacking team like United has become.
In this game, Atlanta took a relatively modest 10 shots, but 8 of them were on target. The shooting was so accurate that the first off-target attempt didn’t come until the 76th minute, and the second in the 85th. And the two players who took those attempts? Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Miles Robinson, the 2 central defenders. Yes, even with United in what is now becoming a fairly standard approach of bunkering more or less since half time, the defense was confident enough to get that far forward that late in the game and pull the trigger.
And so we go into the international break, and first up is a homecoming for Tata Martino, whose El Tri will face Venezuela on Wednesday in the Benz. Hopefully, Josef will get an early red card and a rest like Miggy did against Mexico back in March.
Which means the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings will be getting a bit of a break, but until then:
Man of the Match was Josef Martinez for his second straight two-goal game. Easy call there. Special Mentions go to Brad Guzan and Miles Robinson for their sterling defensive efforts.
GK: Brad Guzan – 8. At this point Brad needs to open a laundry business. That was his 8th clean sheet of the season, 5 short of his personal best (in 2007 with Chivas USA, who won the Western Conference that year) and halfway to the MLS record held by Tony Meola (with the Kansas City Wizards in 2000).
LB: Michael Parkhurst – 7. 2 interceptions, 3 clearances and 1 block (with his back; does that really count?). Oddly, the Fire stayed away from him, opting to attack Franco Escobar instead (see the heatmap above).
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 7. Looked very solid and completely unaffected by getting scalped by Brent Kallman in midweek. Just 3 clearances and that 1 shot. He owns zone 14…
CB: Miles Robinson – 8. But Miles has put in a very strong bid. 3 tackles, 6 interceptions and 7 blocks. And a great recovery after giving the ball away badly in the first half. That was a serious afternoon’s work.
RB: Franco Escobar – 7.5. 2 tackles, 1 interception, 2 clearances and 1 block. But his passing was incredible:
34 passes for 88.2% accuracy, and all up and down the wing. The yellow card, by the way, was for dissent, not the actual foul tackle, and that was an absolutely correct call by Nima Saghafi.
LDM: Eric Remedi – 8. A very good game from Eric, who had 51 passes with 96.1% accuracy, all in the middle third.
RDM: Darlington Nagbe – 7. It’s rare that Remedi tops Nagbe in the passing stats, but Darlington is playing an increasingly retreated role in FdB’s system. This may be his best use though, as he is nearly impossible to dispossess in the midfield.
LM: Dion Pereira – 7. Played just 55 minutes, but got an incredible through-ball assist on the second goal. He was a quiet pick-up in the off-season amid all the Pity hoopla, but is definitely proving his value.
CAM: Julian Gressel – 7. Should have had a foul called on the tackle by Francisco Calvo (yeah, that guy) that hobbled him just before half time, but was able to continue until the 72nd minute. Interacted well with Franco.
RM: Pity Martinez – 8. A well-earned assist, busting his way into the D to serve up Josef with a perfect opportunity. Also had 3 shots on target. Left after 80 minutes with the game well in hand.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 9. And we all thought Miggy was the one with speed. Josef is getting very good at leaving defenders in the dust. And as we have noted, his role is changing. Matt Doyle had this to say about him after the game:
Josef is a target forward now. In 2018 under Tata Martino he averaged 16.8 passes per game, and created 43 chances in 39 games (including the playoffs). In 2019 under Frank De Boer he’s up to 21.4 passes per game and has created 21 chances in 15 games. Atlanta’s attack runs through Josef, not just to him anymore.
Man, it hurts to agree with Doyle.
SUB: Brek Shea – 7. A pretty good 35 minutes from Brek, including 1 good shot, although he perhaps could have laid it off to Josef for the hat-trick.
SUB: Jeff Larentowicz – 7. 18 official minutes, and wasn’t really tested defensively. Got a shot on frame though.
SUB: Justin Meram – 7. 10 minutes of clean-up work. Like Jeff, he was not exactly challenged.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 8. Actually played the exact same lineup as on Wednesday. Got pretty much the same result.
DAX MCCARTY – 0. Too old and too slow. For heaven’s sake take the DOGSO.