Better late than never. It took 4 games, 88 minutes and 25 seconds, but Atlanta United finally took a lead against Bill Hamid and made it stand up. Atlanta’s previous victories against D.C. United were both with David Ousted in goal; until now Hamid had been one of several goalkeepers whose headstanding heroics have given the 352 Stripes fits. This particular dragon is now slain by St. Gonzalo, and Zack Steffen has flown away like Drogon. The world seems somehow safer today.
Other than the Philadelphia Union beating the Chicago Fire to stay top of the Eastern Conference, the win over D.C. capped a very successful week. Atlanta added 2 more to its bag of clean sheet wins, bringing the total to 11 on the season. The team has in fact allowed just 1 goal in its 11 wins to date (it has scored 24). That’s fairly impressive. The team has also failed to score just 3 times. That matches its total from last year. However, with the changes at the beginning of this season, it’s not all that bad, and the last scoreless game was May 19th. Since then, the team has struggled with tight scheduling and absent key players, but is still producing (a couple of horror results notwithstanding).
Atlanta now finds itself in second place in the conference, trailing the Union by 3 points but with 1 game still in hand. It is tied on wins (the first tiebreaker) with the Union, and only the two LA teams have more wins. Atlanta is tied with New York City FC for best goal differential in the East (+10) and is bested in the entire league only Los Angeles FC, who have a ludicrous +35 GD (from 21 games, just 2 shy of the 2017 Toronto FC post-shootout season record and 6 shy of the LA Galaxy’s 1998 overall record).
Because of the gaudy numbers being thrown up by LAFC, the Supporters’ Shield looks like a tough ask. Which makes Friday’s game at Banc of California Stadium critical. That aside, Atlanta is sitting in a strong position in the Eastern Conference race, and with 2 excellent results should be feeling much more confident.
Anyhow, with two games in one week, a little exercise in comparative statistical analysis seems appropriate. Take a look at this table:
Not much to distinguish the two games, is there? If anything, given that Houston played with just 10 men virtually the entire game, they actually did a little better than D.C. The heat map comparison is even more startling. I’ve already shown this, but as a reminder here is the Houston game:
And for D.C.:
Again, there is little to choose between the two, and any difference can be attributed to Houston’s missing striker. Granted, D.C. were playing without Wayne Rooney, but they did have Luciano Acosta (possibly for the last time, ha!) in front of Paul Arriola and Lucas Rodriguez. At the other end, Houston has no defense to speak of, whereas D.C. does, including the appropriately-named 6’5” tree-like centerback Donovan Pines. And yet D.C. were in their own box more than Houston, and Hamid was called on to make 4 saves.
If his teams’ performance is anything to go by, D.C coach Ben Olsen’s game plan was to bunker and possibly get a lucky counterattacking goal. That makes his decision to set his team up in the offensively-oriented 3-4-2-1 formation rather odd. The formation is, rather obviously, an adapted 3-4-3 intended to exploit a false 9 striker supported by two attacking midfielders. Acosta as the false 9 generated just one shot in 88 minutes before getting pulled for Quincy Amarikwa. Arriola got 3 shots and Rodriguez none. That’s not what you would call productive in an attacking formation. Moreover, the 3-4-2-1 is Total Football on steroids, and because of its defensive weakness requires a very adaptable lineup. D.C. are a strong team, but there really aren’t any teams in MLS strong enough to do that effectively. There aren’t many anywhere, in fact, which is why the formation is rarely used.
Worse, when your opponent is set up to attack and does have at least some experience in a similar formation, you’re going to have trouble. Atlanta rolled out the 3-5-2 for the second time this week, and proceeded rather arrogantly to do to D.C. exactly what it had done to Houston…
…with the exception that D.C. has both a defense and a goalkeeper, whereas Houston doesn’t. And so, with just 95 seconds to go, it looked like Olsen was going to leave Atlanta with at least a point. Atlanta finally made the breakthrough that 18 shots deserved, and the game changed in a heartbeat.
Of course, the game could have changed 16 minutes earlier, when Josef Martinez missed a penalty kick for just the second time in MLS. About that penalty kick…check this screenshot:
Bill Hamid is well off his line before Josef takes the kick. In fact, he took about 3 steps before the kick is taken. Much has been said of this, largely that under the new Laws (that will not be used in MLS until next season) this would not be permitted. Well, that’s flat out wrong. It’s not permitted now. The new Law 14 is actually more lenient on goalkeepers than the existing Law. Here’s what the new Law states:
When the ball is kicked, the defending goalkeeper must have at least part of one foot touching, or in line with, the goal line.
It also states that he can’t be touching any part of the goal itself, including the net. the language is additional to what was already in the Law; it does not replace it. Here is IFAB’s official statement on why the wording was added:
Requiring the goalkeeper to have only one foot (rather than two) touching the goal line (or, if jumping in the air, in line with the goal line) when the penalty kick is taken is a more practical approach as it is easier for the referee (especially if officiating without neutral assistant referees) to see when both feet are off the line; this change will also assist VARs.
As the kicker can ‘stutter’ in the run up, it is fair for the goalkeeper to anticipate the kick and take one step forward. The goalkeeper is not allowed to stand behind the line.
So IFAB was directly addressing situations exactly like Josef’s trademark hop in the run up. Even so, Hamid has neither foot on the line. Under the Law, he should have been shown a yellow card and the kick retaken.
But it gets worse. D.C.’s Frederic Brillant (#13) is clearly inside the penalty area. You can’t see him well in the screenshot, but Donovan Pines is also in the area. A retake is rarely called when a defender encroaches. But when 3 defenders violate the procedure, that’s a bit much. However, Allen Chapman was letting a lot of stuff go (and, it seems, so was VAR Jorge Gonzalez). Including a clear Atlanta PK earlier.
Justice was served in the end, I guess. Here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
It’s rare that we award the honors to a late-ish substitute. In this case it’s an easy call. Man of the Match goes to Pity Martinez, who was very much the difference-maker. Special Mentions are awarded to Josef Martinez for hanging it all out there as usual, and to Darlington Nagbe for overcoming evident confusion.
GK: Brad Guzan – 7. Yet another clean sheet, and credited with 3 saves getting there. And not just routine ones this time.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 7.5. LGP marred a very good game with a yellow card. 4 tackles, 2 interceptions and 1 clearance. Also 87.5% passing on 88 attempts. Played more like a wingback than a centerback.
CB: Miles Robinson – 8. Also very strong. 2 tackles and 2 interceptions on a relatively easy defensive outing, but led all starters in the game with 93 passes for 94.6% accuracy. 3 shots on goal, 1 on target. 3rd best Audi Index in the game behind the 2 Martinezes.
RB: Franco Escobar – 7. 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and 2 clearances. Less active going forward than the other two backs.
LWB: Justin Meram – 7. 2 shots, but neither was on target. Relatively weak passing: 47 for 74.5%. Pulled in the 83rd minute looking tired and a bit frustrated.
LM: Emerson Hyndman – 7. Emerson continues to impress. 2 shots, neither on goal. Passing was 94.1% on 51 tries. Looks like he has integrated himself into the team and system pretty quickly. Exited the game in second half stoppage time.
CM: Eric Remedi – 7. Not overly active in this game. No shots, but 81 passes and 90.1% accuracy. Despite the advanced play, his personal heatmap shows him in a relatively withdrawn position most of the time.
RM: Darlington Nagbe – 8. Made the perfect assist on Pity’s game-winner. However, his passing numbers were low again: just 54 passes with 87% connecting. also 2 off-target shots. Rumor has it he has requested pockets in his shorts going forward.
RWB: Julian Gressel – 7. Showed yet again how much more effective he is playing out wide. Credited with the all-important hockey assist feeding Darlington. No shots, and 45 passes for 82.2%.
FWD: Brandon Vazquez – 6. This time he was the weak link in the offense, and was expected in the DSS Slack to be the first player out. He was, in the 65th minute, rather later than we had all anticipated.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 8. Well, you can’t sink them all, but this PK was way off. Still, he racked up 7 shots with 4 on target, and sank the late goal to ice the game.
SUB: Pity Martinez – 9. Easily the best 25 minutes he has played for Atlanta. Only the 1 shot, but he made it count. Also got the assist on Josef’s goal. This what we hired him to do. And I have to wonder: is this the first time an MLS team has started with $30 million or more sitting on the bench?
SUB: Dion Pereira – 6. Came in for Justin Meram. Made just 1 pass in his time on the field.
SUB: Jeff Larentowicz – 7. Made his contractually obligated appearance, managing not to knock any D.C. players to the turf. Even got in a clearance in short time on the field.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 8. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Also seems to be shifting to the Tata Martino philosophy on substitutions, i.e., play them until they keel over.
PASSING NOTES – 0. Apparently FdB thinks Atlanta’s learning curve with his new system is still so steep he’s sent them back to middle school.