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Could Atlanta United snap back toward the top of MLS in 2021?

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Sure, 2020 was a disaster. But there are plenty of reasons to foresee better times ahead.

Atlanta United FC v DC United Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

We fans will always ride the highs and the lows and take our opinions to the extreme. Two years ago, we were sure that Atlanta United were the best thing to ever happen to MLS. But by last summer, we were certain that early success was a fluke, and the club were headed for a long period in the doldrums of the league. But one moment can turn around the sentiment of an entire fan base. And with much-coveted Gabriel Heinze’s imminent arrival to Atlanta United, things are finally looking up after a disastrous 2020.

Indeed, as 2020 nears its conclusion, there is very legitimate reason to believe 2021 will be better. Heinze looks a solid hire who checks all the boxes. But more importantly, an objective look back on 2020 tells us that Heinze isn’t walking into a total rebuild. Perhaps only a few sensible additions to the roster are needed, rather than a complete overhaul. And after a pleasantly surprising victory over Club America last night, Atlanta may just be poised for a return to the “glory days” of its first three years of existence.

Underrated in Defense

The departure last offseason of club legend Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and retirement of the GOAT MLS CB Michael Parkhurst made the back line a real mystery heading into 2020. But in the end, the defense did a pretty decent job, especially considering the dumpster fire that was playing out in midfield and attack.

Atlanta were among the top 5-10 teams in xGA (expected goals against) for most of the season, before finishing in 11th (see below) after poor performances in their final few matches. Atlanta’s xGA was essentially identical to their output in 2019 on a per game basis.

Even more impressive, looking at the chart above, we see that sides with poor attacks like Atlanta’s tend to get eaten alive on the other end. Look at the teams around Atlanta in the table (who unsurprisingly struggled to create opportunities) — all of them conceded significantly more defensively than Atlanta. After all, it’s hard to defend when the players in front of you are incapable of creating opportunities, often leaving you exposed to counter attacks or pinned deep in your own end due to an inability for the attack to drive the team forward. We saw this on several occasions last night, with the back four several times back on their heels after Atlanta lost the ball with bodies caught forward.

Certainly, Atlanta’s defense was able to provide a serviceable output, despite getting little to no help from those in front of them. And on top of that, Atlanta’s defense was even more so exposed when you consider that Atlanta were typically set up to attack and had much of the ball, finishing 4th in possession in MLS within an attacking style that saw it’s fullbacks and midfield all get forward to no avail. The high possession and tactical setup, coupled with the fact that Atlanta created next to nothing in attack, would indicate that Atlanta were holding the ball for long periods of time before inevitably losing possession with bodies caught forward and the defense isolated against the counter. This reality makes the defense’s performance all the more impressive. We discussed this during MLS is Back, as Atlanta’s inability to create anything from their attack-minded tactics was leaving the defense exposed on the counter over and over again.

Credit must be given where it’s due, as the likes of Miles Robinson, Anton Walkes, Franco Escobar and Fernando Meza formed a solid rotation at center half. George Bello showed himself to be a budding star at left back. And while Franco Escobar can be somewhat of an enigma, he showed how good he can be in last night’s win over Club America at right back.

Furthermore, Atlanta’s center backs show a strong ability to pass the ball, an absolute must in their intended system of play, and an important part of Heinze’s tactics, also. According to FBref.com, Robinson ranked near the top of defenders in progressive passing distance despite missing time with injury, and he also ranked top 10 among defenders in accurate long balls per game (completing 6.1 per match to the beloved Gonzalez Pirez’ 5.1, by the way), while Walkes ranked tops in the league in accurate short passes per game among defenders who played in over half of their team’s matches, with Robinson finishing No. 8, and Meza completing more short passes than both per game (although he played in slightly less than half of Atlanta’s matches).

Quite clearly, Atlanta’s center backs have the ability to complete passes efficiently and progressively, setting the table for those in front of them. What happens after these passes are completed is not in their hands, as we saw in 2020. And last night, with the attack in front of them looking lively for the first time in ages, Meza and Robinson put on a passing clinic from the back.

Heinze, known for wanting to build from the back, had to have liked what he saw.

Now, without question, improvements must be made to the defense. Atlanta were one of the worst teams in MLS at defending set pieces and lacked proper depth at either fullback spot. But considering the circumstances of 2020, it’s clear the back four played quite well, whether it be defending successfully in dangerous areas thanks to a harmless attack, or passing the ball efficiently and consistently to help Atlanta retain possession, and set the table for the players in front of them (who subsequently did nothing).

Attack

Let’s not pull any punches here, Atlanta United’s attack in 2020 was an epic kind of bad, especially considering the dynamism of the unit in the prior three seasons. Something was broken from the start for Atlanta in 2020, and the numbers are nothing short of horrific.

So, what can be done here to fix things? Firstly, and most importantly, Atlanta need a bona fide goalscorer. And the obvious fact is that this problem should be solved in 2021 with the return of one of MLS’ best ever goalscorers in Josef Martinez.

In theory, Martinez’ addition would also open up doors for the likes of Ezequiel Barco (assuming he isn’t sold) and Marcelino Moreno, both of whom prefer to drive the team forward and present opportunities for others rather than score the goals themselves. And further down the depth chart, Brooks Lennon proved to be Atlanta’s best chance creator with his distribution from wide, and Martinez has feasted on MLS defenses when receiving quality service from the wings. The player they were providing service to in 2020 was supposed to be Martinez, instead it was a mix of Adam Jahn and Erick Torres. And Atlanta United was the most fouled team in MLS as players dribbled and carried the ball forward (they also lead the league in progressive carries of the ball) only to be hacked down without a reliable player to provide service in front of them.

Yes, the attack was terrible in 2020, but the principle reason the team couldn’t score goals had far less to do with tactics or culture than the fact that the player assigned to score said goals was on the sidelines. Of course, the club also shot itself in the foot by releasing a slew of key attacking pieces from 2020, and not adequately replacing them. But the Atlanta attack is far better with Josef Martinez in the lineup, an indisputable fact that surely would’ve seen them finish significantly better than dead last in xG in MLS (and in theory, would see the defense and midfield improve, as well).

Midfield

In midfield, additions are needed. But the cupboard isn’t completely barren. If Moreno plays there, he was one of the most dynamic players in Argentina at that spot. Emerson Hyndman, much-maligned for his contract, is still a quite serviceable player who completes passes at a high clip, especially in the attacking third. The jury is out on Matheus Rossetto, but the Brazilian showed flashes of his ability in 2020, and helped push the Five Stripes towards the winning goal last night after being subbed on.

There is however, a gaping hole at defensive midfield, a crucial position for distributing to attacking players while also providing balance in defense. Atlanta went through a slew of players in this position to no avail after failing to sign a reliable No. 6 last offseason. In fact, the inability of Atlanta’s front office to sign a player for this important position has been mind boggling, with the team forced to turn to an aging Jeff Larentowicz season after season as Eric Remedi proved to be inconsistent-at-best and Mo Adams and Hyndman were unsuited for the role. This is undoubtedly a spot where Atlanta must go find an upgrade - a player that can fill the void week-in week-out. Early indications are that the front office have recognized this issue, with the club being linked to Boca Juniors’ Agustin Almendra this week.

So, where do we stand? Certainly it is the attack, not the defense, that must transform its game in 2021. Luckily for Atlanta, Josef Martinez is a transformative attacking player, as we all know. With him back in the fold perhaps bringing out the best from Barco, Moreno, Lennon, and the rest in attack (hopefully this list includes an addition or two in midfield), there’s plenty reason to believe that the Five Stripes are back to themselves going forward next season.

The Sky isn’t Actually Falling

As the dust settles on a tumultuous 2020 season for Atlanta United, we’re finding that things perhaps aren’t as bad at the club as we feared. The seemingly-imminent hiring of Heinze clearly signals intent to get back to the winning and exciting soccer played under Tata Martino (and to some extent Frank de Boer in ‘19, with Martino’s players).

Furthermore, an objective and deeper look under the surface shows us that there is reason to be bullishly positive about the defense, who performed exceptionally well despite being essentially left out to dry by the attack. And there is also reason to believe that the attack will improve by leaps and bounds, with the obvious value of Josef Martinez, one of the best attacking players in MLS, back in the starting lineup, and hopefully a bolstered midfield.

Was 2020 an unmitigated disaster? Yes. Did the front office botch a slew of personnel moves last offseason that gutted a successful group and set the team up for failure? Also yes. But as we lamented these disasters, we missed out on some of the positives, preferring to stick with our justifiable narratives of total doom and gloom. But without doubt, there are clear signs of life in Atlanta. We just needed a sign of hope — in this case the link to Gabriel Heinze — to assure us that better times may lie ahead.