For the second year on a row, Atlanta United advanced to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League with a commanding performance in Kennesaw. Unlike last year, United entered the game merely needing to prevent Motagua from scoring. Just like last year, Atlanta handed down a complete thumping on an underpowered opponent.
The general approach for MLS teams in the CCL Round of 16 is to survive as well as possible in Central America (or not get destroyed in Mexico, ahem, LAFC) and then finish business at home. Given Atlanta’s severe short-handedness last week, that was obviously going to be one half of the game plan. The other half was to hope for reinforcements this week.
Well, they got some reinforcements. Jake Mulraney found his way into the country, and Brooks Lennon was fit enough to start. As it turned out, they were more than enough.
They also allowed Frank de Boer to deploy the 3-4-3. And we got an indication of how it might work for the Stripes this season.
In attack, the formation has two advantages. First, with a 3-man front, you can overload the middle of the field. We saw that last week with the 4-3-3, but even more so Tuesday in the return leg. Here’s last night’s heatmap:
Atlanta is on the left. Everything went up Route 1, and most of that in Motagua’s half.
The second advantage is that with wingbacks, the wide option is not forgotten, and the crossing game also has to be accounted for by the defense. With the 3-man midfield last week, Atlanta attempted just 9 crosses. In Kennesaw, they attempted 22. Lennon and Mulraney as the wingbacks provided most of those. But they are probably not FdB’s first choice. Here’s why:
That’s not what one could call a resounding success. Atlanta achieved an overall passing success rate of 87%, but just 23% on crosses. Granted, crosses have a low connection rate, but that was pretty bad, and as you can see, even the successful ones went way off target. Still, it kept the defense honest. (Cue the lament for Julian Gressel…)
Defensively, the 3-4-3 means that it is very easy to flip to a 4- or 5-man back line, which Atlanta did on several occasions in this game. And the defense Tuesday was stout. Motagua attempted just 6 shots in the game, and none were on target. 4 of those shots were in the last 13 minutes, when they had no choice but to go full YOLO.
Overall, the formation plays to United’s main strength, which is to say, its front 3. It’s an attacking lineup, and, as we all know, offense is the best form of defense. Atlanta is now very much the PB&J show (and last night, mostly the PJ show). Support those 3 with a sufficiently solid midfield to provide service, and sparks will fly. That will be true in build-up play, and on the counter-attack, both of which were in evidence at the Fraction. The question of course is: does Atlanta have that midfield? It certainly did Tuesday, and more reinforcements should be on the way. A full-strength roster should be more than enough to handle MLS this season, but will it be enough to handle CCL? Especially since we face Club América (again) in the quarters, even though they struggled in the round of 16?
On to the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is Pity Martinez, who had possibly his best game yet in Atlanta colors. Special Mentions are warded to Josef Martinez, who lad it all out there as usual, and to Fernando for bringing some Brazilian flash.
GK: Brad Guzan – 7. Bit tough to rate a goalkeeper who literally had nothing to do all game. He made precisely 0 saves, and with Atlanta forcing the game upfield wasn’t even called on as a sweeper-keeper.
LB: Anton Walkes – 6. 3 interceptions, 5 clearances and 6 recoveries. Not exactly a taxing evening.
CB: Fernando Meza – 6. Also not exactly challenged, and spent most of his time jogging back from attacking corner kicks. 1 interception, 2 clearances and 5 recoveries. Clearly brought in as the calming presence at the back.
RB: Franco Escobar – 7. 1 interception, 2 clearances and 9 recoveries. Franco came about as close as anyone on the field to a yellow card (the Costa Rican referee issued no sanctions in this game).
LW: Jake Mulraney – 5. Attempted just 17 passes in 81 minutes. Only 10 of them connected (58.8%). 1 off-target shot. Overall, not good enough.
LM: Eric Remedi – 7. An uneventful game this time. 83.3% accuracy on 78 passes, largely clustered around the center circle.
RM: Emerson Hyndman – 7. Missed just 1 of 57 passes. Nagbesque numbers. Given a short break after 88 minutes.
RW: Brooks Lennon – 6. 26 passes, 80.8% connecting. Most of those were in the attacking half. Rather better than Mulraney on the opposite wing, but still not the wide play we are used to seeing from Atlanta.
LAM: Ezequiel Barco – 7. For once, Zeke was not the most fouled player on the field. Or at least, he was not the player to get the most fouls called, which is not necessarily the same thing. He drew a relatively modest 3 fouls (Eric got 5). However, he showed some serious speed on the ball and terrorized Motagua defenders all night. 3 shots, 1 on target.
RAM: Pity Martinez – 9. So far this season: 4 goals. 4 scored by Martinez, 4 assisted by Martinez. This is going to get confusing. This is the Pity Uncle Arthur paid for. He was not only the key scorer, he was pretty much the playmaker everywhere. A whopping 7 shots, 3 on target. Given a well-deserved ovation after 88 minutes.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 8. That backheel assist was just bellissimo. Should have had at least one penalty kick awarded, and if Pity hadn’t scored his second, probably a second one. 5 shots, 2 on frame.
SUB: Luiz Fernando Nascimento – 7. Possibly the most entertaining 9 minutes of soccer you’ll see all year. Fernando came close to scoring, but as for the rest, well, MLS’ page on him says it all.
SUB: Jeff Larentowicz – 6. Came on for cleanup duty, found the field in pristine condition. Even after Fernando’s filth.
SUB: Mo Adams – 6. Same as for Jeff. Not called on to do anything much.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 7. Reverted to his default game plan, which worked to perfection. However, he loses serious style points for wearing a quilted hoodie under a suit jacket.
FOX SPORTS GRAPHICS AND STATS PRODUCTION – 0. Yeah, you didn’t have a good night. On top of the evident lack of geographical knowledge, in the first half summary Fox credited Motagua with 6 shots (they had 1) and later gave them 45% possession (the best they got to was 40.6% with 5 minutes left).