There’s a story in Buddhist teachings called the parable of the second arrow. It’s about suffering, here’s how it goes:
It is said the Buddha once asked a student,
‘If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful? If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?’
He then went on to explain,
‘In life, we can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. This second arrow is optional.’
If you’re Atlanta United the second arrow is incoming and what to do about it is at hand. Last week against LAFC there were four arrows and they came in a span of 13 minutes. The parable of the second arrow is about stories that we tell ourselves - what amount of suffering will we choose to endure and how can the narrative be changed? One way to look at the 4-3 scoreline is that the referees gave the game away when Carlos Vela got a shaaaaaaaaady penalty. Another way to look at it is that the teams played in the game of the season and it was completely thrilling.
Atlanta United stepped up, there were mistakes, there were odd subs, but the team was a better taken chance and a player taking a shot rather than a pass away from a 4-4- draw when that seemed unlikely after 45 minutes. Hell, a 4-3 loss seemed like an accomplishment at the 44th minute. The team gave its all and really that’s the important thing in a single 90 minute encounter.
But, taken as a whole, it was another loss where the defense faltered against a good (OK, great) attack. Miles Robinson looked like 4th of July, 2018 Miles Robinson, Franco Escobar had a tough one and the result was four goals allowed. That adds up to 18 goals let in over the last eight games. This is a team I had talked myself into almost thinking could beat everyone 1-0 while I wrote about how defensive soccer could also be beautiful. that ain’t happening. It’s difficult to see what the process is in 2019 with Atlanta United given how the season has progressed. Until the games actually start, it’s difficult to know what this team is going to try to do week in and week out. What seems to be apparent is that a defensive minded coach is leading a team of attackers in a league where the rules are tailored for scoring goals.
The arrows will not stop anytime soon. Atlanta United needs to figure out what it is and how to react to the next arrows or the suffering will continue.
About time MLS got serious about discipline
MLS is extremely brave and issued Zlatan a yellow card for smashing a guy’s face in against LAFC so he’ll miss a game in a stadium with turf that he probably wouldn’t have played in anyway thanks to yellow card accumulation. Not because he smashed Mohamed El-Munir in the face:
The yellow accumulation suspension is also extremely convenient for the league because it meant that they could send a showcase player to the All-Star Game and not have to answer questions like, “why did you suspend a player for violent conduct when he injured another player so severely that he underwent surgery and should have seen a red card in the game for a league match but are letting him represent MLS as an All-Star? Don’t you think that basically confirms everything fans think about MLS taking a soft stance on stars when they commit horrendous fouls while at the same time grandstanding about player safety and VAR being a way to make the game more fairly officiated?” But we don’t have to answer that question because he got a yellow and gave the Discipline Committee and Don Garber a really easy way out of thinking about these things to the extent that anyone cares.
The Galaxy will have way more players than Zlatan out though. Diego Polenta and Efrain Alvarez both were suspended in the team’s 4-0 loss to Portland last weekend. Alvarez is an exciting talent, but mostly comes off the bench, however the team will miss Polenta as their starting left back.
As far as how the season is shaping up for LA, they’re currently in third in the West with a 12-1-9 record and are just about as all or nothing as it gets as they have the least number of draws in MLS. That said, they’re decent on the road with a 4-1-5 record, taking 13 of a possible 30 points away from Carson. Still, in the 10 games since the international break, LA has won five and lost five having lost to two bad teams - Colorado and New England, while dropping two to a good Earthquakes side and getting pounded 4-0 against Portland. Wins have come against LAFC, Cincinnati, Orlando, Toronto, and Sporing KC. Supposing that four of those wins were against non-playoff teams and one was fueled by a fire inside of Zlatan that burns brighter than 1,000 suns, it seems fair to say that they can beat the bad teams in the league, struggle against the ones they’re evenly matched with and have the occasional stumble against bad sides.
In case you’re still counting, those five losses represent 5/9 of their games dropped in 2019 and have come in the last 10 games of 22 played. Since the break, LA has scored just 1.2 goals a game while letting in 1.5 - that has contributed to their overall 30 goals scored, 31 allowed over the year. It’s not a great record and throw in that Zlatan has scored 18 of those goals and consider that they have just three wins when the Swede does not score and it seems that LA goes as Zlatan goes.
This seems like it’s what would be expected under a new manager, Guillermo Barros Schelotto took over a struggling team and has brought them to the top of the conference. LA is still suffering from some uneven performances and has struggled to consistently beat the better teams in the league this season. Their style has also been inconsistent with the attack centered around getting the ball to Zlatan while David Bingham watches in horror as his backline collapses when opposing teams get over their fear of having to defend the striker.
With Romain Alessandrini out for the season, the other attackers, like the injury prone Sebastian Lletget and Argentine Fabio Alvarez, are lining up next to young developing players like Uriel Antuna and Efrain Alvarez. In central midfield, Jonathan dos Santos frequently pushes forward to keep possession and bring the ball up field while Joe Corona does his best to not let the opposition to have a free run at American College Graduates Daniel Steres or Dave Romney or one of Jorgen Skjelvik and Giancarlo Gonzalez. It’s been an uneven process, but with MLS drunk on compressing the schedule and making teams play glorified mid-season friendlies against LigaMX teams, it can be difficult to overcome the limitations of rosters, injuries, and a shortened pre-season.
A tale of 2.5 seasons leads to this...
I’ll be honest. I was going to do this whole thing where I low-key built up GBS and Frank de Boer being new to the league but both struggling for similar reasons (the schedule, salary cap, roster rules that assume a certain amount of rest for players but then aren’t changed when the amount of rest changes, international call-ups, injuries, etc.) and then I was going to go on about needing more time and what not, but I think that’d be doing a disservice to the Galaxy manager. LA was awful last year and is on the verge of a top finish in the West while Atlanta United was a point away from winning the East last season, won MLS Cup, and broke records along the way. LA should be having an uneven season, a team that brought in a full Argentine national teamer who was in the World Cup last year and has a golden boot winner shouldn’t.
The last eight games have been a big step back for the Five Stripes. Yes, Tito and Barco were injured or with their national teams and those are big losses. The squad also added reinforcements that are making difference in games and should be an asset for the rest of the year and hopefully beyond. That said, since the end of the international break the Five Stripes have let in 18 goals over 8 games, a stretch where the team has gone 3-1-4. Prior to the break, Atlanta allowed just three goals in eight games, winning six and losing two.
What changed? Well, only two of those games were against playoff teams and Atlanta lost one of those while also losing to Real Salt Lake. It seemed like that run of games was something of a mirage and this reporter asked - are Atlanta frauds and will the team figure out how to beat good teams when the schedule gets tougher after the break? It seems like the answer is probably not the one anyone wanted. But maybe Atlanta is trying to attack more? The team has 19 goals in those 8 games having scored just 10 in the previous 15 games. It’s almost like Atlanta is doing what the Sounders did last year, except not winning the games in the second half of the season that it should.
Meanwhile, a manager who criticized his predecessor’s defensive record (having the 4th best defense in MLS is bad apparently) when he took over the club has been criticized by his starting centerback. Elsewhere the fancy new designated player who de Boer has made the most predictable puns about all year said some words to reporters in Argentina so along with uneven results, there’s discord off the field also.
This seems like a good time to pull a quote in Brilliant Orange I used in an article I wrote at the beginning of the year back out:
Why have the Dutch never won the World Cup, despite having so many wonderful, intelligent players and such a deliciously original and beautiful conception of the game? To an outsider, the manner in which Dutch national teams regularly fail in major tournaments is hard to comprehend. What weird, remorseless, fatal inner logic causes Dutch players, coaches and the federation to exhaust themselves in pointless petty feuds about tactics, power and money? [...] Whatever the reasons, it’s a pattern unique in world football: a quintessentially Dutch combination of ill-discipline, complacency and lack of will or nerve. The Dutch seem to have an allergy to authority, leadership and collective discipline. Their teams behave like armies of generals.
All right, enough about the entire year. Atlanta has a good chance to go to three wins in a row at home. LA is missing its best player, Jim Curtin can’t out manage Frank de Boer this week, and the Galaxy will have to contend with Ezequiel Barco, Pity Martinez, and Josef Martinez (assuming that FdB thinks he should play the three designated players at the same time this week) without their starting left back. Meanwhile, Atlanta is coming off of an emotional and exhausting candidate for best game of the year against LAFC. If anything good has happened in training this week with five players in the All-Star Game it’d be nice to see it come together against the Galaxy’s backups.
I’m not saying Atlanta needs an Argentine manager, I’m saying we need one who can balance what he wants, what the players want, and what the team can do in a way that wins games and shows either progress or a consistent style.
Instead of asado, there’s neurosis and puns
Thanks for staying with me till the end here. There are 11 games left in the year. Atlanta has gone from can’t score - to doesn’t let anyone score - to scores a lot while letting everyone score a lot in the 23 games played this year. The playoffs are in view, first place in the East is for the taking, and a huge game against NYCFC looms after this one (you know, with an Open Cup semi-final and a game that’s totally not a friendly against Club America also mixed in). Over those 11 (or 13 or 14 or whatever else MLS comes up with, who knows - what are the Harlem Globetrotters doing, can they soccer, can MLS cashgrab some cash with them maybe?) games something resembling a cohesive style of soccer should emerge because up to now all we’ve seen is a “weird, remorseless, fatal inner logic” on a team that behaves like an “army of generals.”