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Prekrap: Atlanta United vs. San Jose Earthquakes - balance, identity, and solving an existential crisis

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TL/DR: please fix the midfield

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United bounced back after a big, ugly, dumb loss at home with a big, ugly, dumb win on the road. This happens in MLS, teams bunker because it’s hard to break down teams that bunker even if they’re bad at soccer. Atlanta United managed two goals against FC Cincinnati to stay afloat in the race for second place in the East. A win on the road against the worst team in MLS with the worst defense in league history is what is expected, but there were some unnerving moments in the game. FCC was basically hoping to hold on for dear life and maybe steal a goal or two on the counter, it nearly worked.

Cincy managed 14 shots in the game despite getting just 33% of the possession in the match, only two of those shots were on target, but their xG for the game was 1.55 compared to Atlanta’s 1.41. What matters is the shots that went in the net, but it seems like the problems that emerged against Columbus are still prevalent and the team once again has short rest to figure out how to resolve them and doing so might mean resolving existential questions about Atlanta’s identity going into the match. As if overcoming an internal opponent is not enough, the team will face not some bottom dwelling Ohio scrub side, but rather the fearsome San Jose Earthquakes who are good and fun actually.

Call him San Josef Wondolowski

Don’t call him that (but please, please fix the midfield).

The San Jose Earthquakes have quite simply put together one of the more unlikely turn-arounds in the league this year. After the worst season in MLS history, the Quakes went from a team that could only win four games with a totally incapable defense, to one that has a marginally improved defense and solid attack that is in line for a playoff spot. A big reason for that has been new manager Matias Almeyda finding an effective role for Tommy Thompson, the inevitable move from winger to right back truly fulfilling his destiny, the emergence of central midfielder Jackson Yueill, and the resurgent effectiveness of Chris Wondolowski.

Wondo began the year ice cold being unable to get into a game for San Jose as he was on the verge of breaking Landon Donovan’s all time MLS goals record. Then the Quakes played the Chicago Fire and the team from the Windy Suburb completely forgot that Wondo is a poacher and he poached four goals in one game. Since then, he’s added 10 more and has four goals in the last five games. This will also make the 10th year the striker has had 10 or more goals in a season which is pretty remarkable for a player who didn’t get regular starts until he was in his mid 20s and who graduated from a Division II school. All of it begs the question: when with the USA produce another Chris Wondolowski? Atlanta has given up some big chances in recent games. Wondo thrives on converting mistakes and is great at finding space and turning up in unexpected places to score (or not, LOL WORLD CUP 2014 - I’M VERY ORIGINAL) and will punish the defense if that happens on Saturday.

As far as what to expect from San Jose, Almeyda is one of the more accomplished managers in MLS and the problems Atlanta has had will not be lost on him. He guided his former club River Plate back to the first tier in Argentina after they were relegated and did the same with Banfield. This may have gained him something of a reputation as a turn-around artist and he took that mentality to Chivas where he led the Goats to five trophies between 2015 and 2018. That included a Concacaf Champions League title in which he out-foxed the then good at coaching Greg Vanney. This match will once again test Atlanta’s ability to patrol the middle of the field, and any space that is available for a counter will be filled with Earthquakes players, including the best striker in league history.

I’d call this a fever dream, but that’d be an insult to lucidity (no, really, please, please, please fix the midfield)

If you recall the last time that Almeyda was mentioned in this article, you would know that I said this:

“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.”’

That was at the beginning of August when the seeds of doubt seemed to be sown deeply into the soil and were sprouting panic inducing shoots of hemlock. Atlanta went on to have a stellar seven game winning streak in August that was ended with a loss thanks to exhaustion and perhaps a dash of trying to pour gas on a fire to let it burn itself out when what was really needed was water against Philadelphia.

The article above also had a ham-handed analogy to Buddhism that I couldn’t write my way out of, but I’m going to come back to at the risk of alienating the Dharma. If this season is lacking one quality that Atlanta United needs in order to be competitive in the playoffs. Really, it comes down to one thing: balance. The seven games between playing the LA Galaxy and FCC saw the Five Stripes abandon their more cautious approach to swing to a Ride or Die, YOLO, Dominic Toretto, non-stop attack mentality. The team is playing each game with three defenders on the field. Just three - Justin Meram and Julian Gressel are wingers or attacking midfielders and everyone else, except for Jeff Larentowicz when he does play, is pushing forward. The result has been great, or completely terrible, but the identity is deeply un-balanced despite the attacking desire of the players and defensive inclinations of the manager, which brings up an interesting question:

Who is managing the team?

Frank de Boer’s fingerprints are becoming less evident with each match played since Josef Martinez joined Pity and Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez in being loud about how Atlanta isn’t playing like Atlanta. After the Seattle game, Atlanta began its YOLO transition as discussed by Tiotal Football and perhaps they were shown to be right. Given how the team played in the 23 league games before the LA Galaxy game, it would seem like FdB is giving into the attacking style that the players prefer - at the expense of things like this happening in midfield:

Whatever was happening with Atlanta before August, giving up that much space between the midfield and backline was not that common. It happened a lot against Philadelphia, Columbus, and even Cincinnati. Possession has given way to pressing and trying to score quickly in transition, but that’s leaving room for a lot of counter attacks. After the loss to the Crew, Frank de Boer told reporters:

“If you are a little bit more patient, then everybody is squeezing up a little bit and you can win more of those duals. I think that we have to recognize, for example, I think we had a bit of a break with six against two or three, or something like that, with Pity (Gonzalo Martinez), Justin (Meram), and Josef (Martinez), and also Julian (Gressel), and Justin tried to get the ball to the other side of the field to Julian, but in a counterattack, (Crew SC) score one of their goals. If you just keep the ball, let our players move upwards, and just play them around, trying to create from that, it is just open play. But, instead, from the first ball, maybe one time out of twenty it will go well. We have to recognize those moments. ‘Hey, we are in transition, so be more careful and patient.’ From there, let everybody get up to midfield and help win those duals. Instead, we lose the ball and have to run straight back 50 or 60 yards.”

This could just be an observation about how the team played, but it also might be de Boer speaking more broadly about the way he prefers to play (more cautious defensively, slower buildup, very focused on possession and organization) as opposed to how the players want to approach the game: going mach 2 with their hair on fire.

2019 has been a year where the struggle for the identity of the team has been an unresolved question. Can it be a possession based, Dutch style squad in a 4-3-3 (it couldn’t)? Can it be a full out attacking monster like in 2018 (well, 2018 wasn’t really like that, and if it means losing to the Crew at home... yikes)? Has Atlanta just deeply internalized Dutch Neurotic Genius? Maybe. Will Matias Almeyda be able to exploit that uncertainty on the road in Atlanta? Caleb Porter was able to.

The key to answering what the identity of the team is will be putting those things in balance, but that will be hard against San Jose. This will be an even greater challenge because Atlanta has such a short amount of time between games down the stretch and needs to have figured things out to expect to win against San Jose and in Yankee Stadium in less than a week.