As we all know, in soccer all kicks have to be onside, so one major problem was dodged without difficulty on Wednesday.
Atlanta United went further than that though. The Stripes snapped the team record 6-game winless streak, and registered their first victory this season over a team with a current PPG over 1.50. Moreover, they did it despite playing without a Designated Player for the first time in team history. Was this this a change of tide for the team’s fortunes this season? We shall see, of course, but there are grounds for optimism.
Over that painful streak, for the most part Atlanta outpossessed, outpassed and even outshot its opponents (especially the last three games). They even played heavily in the attacking half. But in going 0-4-2 they were outscored 12-6. 10 of the goals allowed were in the first half, and 4 in the first 15 minutes. That in part explains the possession advantage, as opponents were able to sit back (if they chose to) and absorb some rather ineffective pressure. Atlanta was constantly fighting an uphill battle, and mostly pushing a rock of Sisyphean proportions to boot.
There are several reasons for Atlanta’s struggles of late, but one of them can be summed up in two words:
The winless streak just happens to coincide with Meza’s injury absence. In the 7 games Meza has started, Atlanta is 4-3-0. Hardly stellar, but his presence accounts for 12 of Atlanta’s 14 points so far this season. And the team outscored the opposition 7-5.
Atlanta still allowed early goals: 3 of the 5 were in the first half, but only 1 in the opening 15 minutes, but at least the damage was kept to no more than one goal in any game.
Meza was brought in to be the experience on the back line. The replacement for the retired Michael Parkhurst. From the get go it was evident that was exactly what he was going to provide. But his injury left a gaping hole. Meza has 218 career professional appearances. Without him, Atlanta started 6 different players on the back line. Five of them have 100 pro games or less under their belts, and that includes games below the top flight (i.e., the USL and English Championships). George Bello has just 32. The only one who tops 100 is Edgar Castillo, who has an impressive 357 pro games (not including national teams). But he started just once over that time, and was obviously brought in as a bit player, not a regular starter. And besides, he’s a fullback, not a center back. And probably nearing retirement too.
The only other player to hit 100 appearances is Brooks Lennon, who is probably more a winger than a fullback. And then there’s Franco Escobar (92 games), who has been a raging hothead of late and prone to major errors.
Meza’s return to the lineup made all the difference. Was Atlanta’s defense perfect? Far from it, but the catastrophic errors were, if not eradicated, then certainly kept to a minimum. FC Dallas were averaging 1.72 goals a game and were held to just 6 shots total, and only 1 on target (in the 80th minute). And that despite the fact that Glass clearly sent in the park the bus order in the second half (Dallas had 57% possession in the final 30 minutes). Escobar calmed down, and Atlanta ended the game with no cards incurred for anyone.
Another of Glass’ orders that worked well was the half-time reorganization of the back line, with Brooks Lennon subbing in for the evidently flagging Miles Robinson, and shifting Escobar inside to a center back role. All in all, a much improved defensive showing.
That being said, the game as a whole was much more entertaining than of late, with the team finally showing some energy and creativity. And yet, winning the game on a Jeff Larentowicz penalty kick was peak 2020. But now we can look forward to Jeff-Josef arguments over who gets to take PKs next year.
Another problem, but not one unique to United, is fixture congestion. Atlanta, of course, as a club is no stranger to that phenomenon, but that’s not the case for much of the current roster. Plus, when you are dealing with an injury-depleted lineup, interim management and a DP running off after oil money, it’s going to end up hurting. Since the MLS Is Back disaster, Atlanta has played 8 games over 33 days, and the 6 without Meza were over just 22 days. That they were able to show any energy at all Wednesday evening is a positive sign.
So…reasons to be cheerful? Maybe. Let me know if you can think of three.
On, then, to the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match will be no surprise to those of you who didn’t skip over my babblings above. Fernando Meza, of course. Special Mentions go to Franco Escobar, who was both capable and flexible, and to Jon Gallagher, who has been something of a bright spot during the recent run of bad form.
GK: Brad Guzan – 7. Brad only had to make one save all night, but was otherwise savvy on the ball and generated some good counter chances from the back.
LB: George Bello – 7. 3 tackles, 1 interception, 1 clearance, 1 block and 6 recoveries. Passing wasn’t that great, though, at 77.% on 44 passes. Still, he’s maturing and staying healthy.
CB: Miles Robinson – 6. A rare half time yanking for Miles, who may be the primary victim of fatigue. Just 2 clearances and 1 recovery. But Atlanta had 72% possession that half.
CB: Fernando Meza – 8. Statistically, not overwhelming: 1 interception, 5 clearances and 2 recoveries. But he was evidently the leader and organizer on the back line.
RB: Franco Escobar – 8. Gets bonus points for the fullback-center back switch, and also for not getting any cards. 1 tackle, 1 interception, 2 clearances and 9 recoveries. 7 of those recoveries were while he was outside, keeping Fafa Picault in check.
LM: Emerson Hyndman – 6. Completing 80.6% of 36 passes in 89 minutes really isn’t getting the job done.
CM: Jeff Larentowicz – 7. Jeff’s 430 career appearances make even Castillo seem like a rookie. Made no mistake on his first PK in five years.
RM: Matheus Rossetto – 6. A Brazilian and an Irishman walked into a locker room at half time… that’s gotta be the start of a joke. At this stage I’m not sure what to make of Rossetto. He was largely a non-factor, completing just 17 of 22 passes. Pulled after 45 minutes in a relatively aggressive move considering the needs of the game at that point.
LW: Jake Mulraney – 7. Played 81 minutes. He was a fairly ordinary 78.3% on just 23 passes, but what he lacked in connectivity he made up for in speed. He led all players in the game with 4 shots and 2 on target.
RW: Brooks Lennon – 7. Started on the wing, finished at fullback. He has played both positions interchangeably over the course of his still young career. 3 tackles, 7 clearances and 8 recoveries, plus 8.3% accurate on 32 passes.
FWD: Jon Gallagher – 7. I skipped the ratings over the past 2 games, because the 0 key on my computer broke. Had I posted them, Jon would have been Man of the Match last time out. And who would have thought that after Jürgen Damm, the two fastest players on this squad are probably both Irish? Given a well-deserved rest after 72 minutes. 2 shots, 1 on frame.
SUB: Eric Remedi – 7. Replaced Rossetto at half time, and really pinned the midfield down. He committed 4 of Atlanta’s 14 fouls in the game. And yes, that’s a really cynical reason for a good rating, but I don’t care. 1 shot off the mark.
SUB: Adam Jahn – 6. Switched in for Miles at half time and managed not a single shot in 45 minutes. Just a big body to get in the way, basically.
SUB: Manuel Castro – 5. 6 passes in 18 official minutes, with just 4 connecting. Not good enough.
SUB: Laurence Wyke – 6. Played half as long as Castro, but managed 8 passes and finished 5.
SUB: Edgar Castillo – N/R. A late sub to waste time, and really didn’t have much to do.
COACH: Stephen Glass – 7. Used both experience and youth, showed some flexibility with his substitutions. Much better than last time out.
SUNDAY’S SCHEDULE – 0. I first lived in the US in 1985 in Chicago. Sunday is going to be seriously conflicted.