Atlanta United’s fifth season has been nothing short of a roller coaster of emotions. It all came to end on Sunday as the Five Stripes rolled up to New York (you can read my tirade on the locale at the end of the article) for what would be their final match of 2021. Anyway, irritation with the obstacles (pitch considerations) to having the world take MLS seriously aside, the match started and could have gone either way in the first few minutes. Atlanta and NYCFC both spent the first half playing tenderly and trying to take advantage of transitions, but neither capitalized.
That all went out the window in the second half, as Atlanta made some serious mental blunders on set pieces which, next to transition, is the best way to score a soccer goal on a baseball field. Who knew? But the first of New York’s two goals was described by Pineda as being unexpected, “We probably weren’t aware of the short pass and it took us by surprise.”
That’s a nice way of saying almost everyone got caught ball-watching on a corner. And it went downhill from there. Sparing the rest of the details, Atlanta lost 2-0 and its comeback story unfortunately came to an abrupt end. Hence, here we are, going over the last set of post-match quotes of the season.
Ultimately, though, Atlanta United probably shouldn’t have been in this position in the first place. After the way Heinze handled the team in the initial phases, just making the playoffs seemed like a pipe dream. Everyone who is a fan of or who covers Atlanta United has said it, but I’ll say it again, kudos to Rob Valentino and Gonzalo Pineda for pulling this club from a dark place and putting them back on the right track. That isn’t to say it was perfect; Atlanta should have hosted this first game and shouldn’t be relying on golazos and moments of brilliance to put away lesser teams, nor should it be giving up late leads, but every team has their issues and those are the Five Stripes’. Because of Valentino and Pineda, the club clawed its way back to where the supporters can even complain about losing in the playoffs as opposed to sitting there on the couch two weeks prior with Cincinnati “eating nuts,” as Tata Martino would say.
And that’s why many people from all over would still call this season a success, including Brooks Lennon. He mentioned that Atlanta United should always be in the playoffs and pushing for a trophy, and I don’t need to point out what happened the year after the last time the team was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. It’s always a hard pill to swallow, obviously, but it’s time to focus on getting the talent where it needs to be and setting the sights for 2022. Here’s what Pineda, Guzan, and Lennon had to say after their final match of 2021.
Atlanta United Head Coach Gonzalo Pineda:
On the team losing control at end of first half, start of second half:
“Well, it’s the playoffs. There are mental breaks at times, and you have some periods where you aren’t as focused as you should be. Those moments, we talked before about managing those moments. It happens. It’s about whether you can take advantage of those moments when you are ahead in the game or trying to stay calm and solve the pressure in a better way when the opposition is dominating you. I felt that the set pieces at the beginning of the second half were a key moment in the game. We talked about that before. But credit to New York City on creating two good set plays and they won the game.”
On the chemistry between the front four tonight:
“We knew that they would put a lot of people in the middle of the park. It’s difficult, and I don’t want this to sound like an excuse, when the field is so reduced and you put a lot of people in the middle, you don’t have a lot of space in the outside as you would like. At the same time, we should have done a better job of moving the ball faster from side to side to create overload moments. We will reflect on that in the film and what we could have done better. Credit to New York City though again. They are a good team and are well coached and today they were better than us.”
On what he wanted to accomplish in second half:
“I felt that we looked in control for periods of time in the first half. Maybe not super dangerous, but at times we were with (Ezequiel) Barco taking on dribbles down the middle, and Marcelino Moreno doing similar on left side. I felt that we needed more balance on the right side. We talked about movements and shapes to create that, and I thought we were doing that at some point. But the goals came very soon in the second half and disturbed the concentration and mentality of the team. It took us 10-15 minutes to figure that out and come out the stronger side with more pressure. In the final 20 minutes we were on the front foot and creating chances. But it wasn’t enough today. I feel that two set pieces are the difference today, because I thought it was pretty even from open play.”
On what he wants to improve on the roster in offseason:
“That’s something we will have to do with the front office with Darren (Eales) and Carlos (Bocanegra). I’ve said before that I am pretty happy with the roster that I have right now. And I stay on that mindset. I think it’s the same I’m thinking now. Of course, you always would like to change a few things and there might be some that come naturally. There are always moving parts in the offseason. But we will try to analyze and evaluate all the players in a fair way and the cohesion of the team in general and see what we can do better.”
On what he is most happy with from the games he’s managed with the team:
“I’m happy with the mentality of the team in general. Coming back from the bad start the team had, everybody did what they had to do to come back in a strong way. I believe there is a statistic that says that since Aug. 12 nobody had more points than this club, and that’s a credit to the players. Today it was again proven to me the heart of the team that they never gave up. I love it when a team never gives up. Down 2-0, playing away, and the team showed character and tried to create chances and push to win the game. Those things to me are valuable. I’m very proud of the heart of the team in general.”
On Castellanos being unmarked at the far post on goal:
“They played very quick and we were just probably setting up our lineup with the zone we always play on corner kicks. We probably weren’t aware of the short pass and it took us by surprise. We definitely scouted Castellanos being on the far post and being the target of set plays. The rest of the plays when we were organized, we did a good job on Castellanos. But it was just that play when they go short, we weren’t aware of that.”
On Josef Martinez and Luiz Araujo struggling to get in flow of attack:
“Yes, I think at times we were doing exactly what we had said to try and unbalance certain patters that they have with their pressure, but more of it on the left side. That connection between Barco, Moreno and Bello was working better than on the right side. That just happens sometimes. Sometimes it’s the opposition pushing the play to one side and blocking the other. I felt that once we broke down the line of midfield pressure, we just weren’t creating enough. Maybe an extra dribbling, a bad pass, not running in behind, just a few things that normally we do well, and today wasn’t our best night in the first half. In the second half, when we changed to the 4-3-3, we were creating more through the overloads. We were more direct in those plays, and we saw more impact in the final third in those moments of the game.”
On his biggest challenge when he joined the club:
“I would say that the biggest challenge was to change the mentality a little bit. They were a little bit down. Rob did a great job of balancing that mindset, and then I took over and tried to make the final push. I think we were successful with that. For next year, we just need to continue with that. With a full preseason, with everyone fit and ready to go, I think we can improve a lot. The experiences we had this year, like the one in Philadelphia, or some of the games where we dropped points at home in the final minutes through set pieces. Those lessons are going to help us in the future. Today again we need to be aware of set pieces at all times in the playoffs. Those are lessons we can use for the future. There is no timeframe to say “This is the time I need to implement my tactics”, sometimes that happens naturally. I feel that we saw a little bit of what I want, but there are things we need to improve.”
Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan
On the team’s focus and intensity in the opening moments of the second half:
“No. At the end of the day, it was set pieces. You switch off in those moments, you give them half of a second and we got punished. We got punished on two set pieces. We were late to react. Even the play leading up, where George (Bello) makes a good block, and we give the corner away. I wouldn’t say the intensity dropped, but we weren’t as sharp as we needed to be on those plays.”
On the first half:
“New York City does a good job of squeezing the ball on to one side of the field. We talked about basically trying to bring them to one side to ultimately go to the other side. There were times when we got stuck, probably a little bit more so on the right side than the left side and not being able to get the ball back over to the left side. Like I said, they do a good job of pressing you and keeping things locked in on one side of the field. But with that being said, we probably could have been sharper, we could have been a little bit cleaner with the ball. But at the end of the day, we went into halftime nil-nil. They were going to have stretches in the game where we were going to have to defend a little bit and be compact and hard to play against, and we were. They are entitled to have the ball and attack and we knew that was going to be the case and we dealt with it and got to halftime at nil-nil. But then obviously, the two plays I talked about earlier, we concede and we never really found our attacking foot in terms of going forward and really dominating possession in the attacking third and creating as many chances as we would have liked.”
On what the team is missing:
“I think on paper when you look at our team, we’ve got fantastic players in terms of the ability, the individual brilliance that guys can create in a moment literally out of nothing can create something fantastic for us. With that being said, we need to be able to do it more collectively and more consistently. I think in terms of understanding that it may not be Marcelino (Moreno) having to create a moment of brilliance or (Ezequiel) Barco a moment of brilliance or Josef (Martinez) popping up late in a game and finding something for us. There needs to be more of an attacking edge consistently. And on both sides of the ball. Defensively and attacking-wise we can certainly get better in all areas of the field. But understanding how to consistently attack and put teams under real pressure home or away.”
On if there is value in adding more MLS veterans to the roster:
“For sure. I’ve always said this league is unique. You guys know it, I know it, we know it. It’s unique. You look back at the year we were successful, you look at other successful MLS teams around the league and there seems to be a common denominator of MLS experience, MLS guys that understand what games are all about, understand what it takes to win postseason games. You look at somebody like Jeff (Larentowicz) or (Michael) Parkhurst or Darlington (Nagbe) that know the league that played a big role in us winning MLS Cup. I think when you have the talent and quality that we have, you then have to make sure you have the right balance in terms of the experienced MLS guys that know how to push the talented big dogs and push them in the right way to make sure that we’re all in a balance and an understanding when going into a game certainly like today.”
Atlanta United defender Brooks Lennon:
On if he considers this season a success:
“It’s hard to put into words how I feel right now. Tough season overall. I thought we fought back from a lot of adversity all year, that’s a success in itself. To come back after being so low in the beginning of the season and not having the points we wanted to have, to make the playoffs is definitely successful for us. This is a franchise that should be in the postseason every single season and pushing for a trophy. So, I think us coming up short of our ultimate goal in lifting a trophy hurts.”
On the difficulty for him and Luiz Araujo to get in the game:
“Luiz is such a talented player and when you put him on a field like this where it’s really compact and he doesn’t have the room to do the things he likes to do. Taking guys on 1-v-1 and isolating players out wide to create chances for him or others, that was just tough tonight. Just based on the condensed pitch and a lot of guys around him at all times. I thought he came into the club and was super successful from day one, we are happy to have him here. Tonight he just wasn’t able to get on the scoresheet, but overall he’s been really good for us.”
On giving up two set piece goals tonight:
“Yeah, Gonzalo told us after the game that it’s about those little details in playoff games. You switch off for two moments in the game and they will come back to get you. Really disappointing to concede that way. I thought the back line played well tonight. I didn’t think that NYCFC had clear cut opportunities every second. They had those two set pieces, and they capitalized on them. We were asleep. You can’t be asleep for a single second in the playoffs and they came back to haunt us.”
On this group having some untapped potential under Gonzalo Pineda:
“Definitely, the more you work with an individual, the more you get to know each other. We know him pretty well, he’s been here quite a while now. We know what he requires in training, which is hard work. You aren’t just going to roll out and playing. You have to fight for your position, it doesn’t matter who you are. You have to fight every single day in training to get the chance to play on the weekend. That’s all you can ask for as a player. That’s what’s going to make our team better. Training well, I thought since Gonzalo came in the team’s training sessions the level rose and we just need to get back to basics. We need to build with Gonzalo and his staff. We have all the intangibles, we just need to get together and play together as a team and spend a whole offseason together. Going into next year, we will have a good opportunity to be a good team.”
On how he defines adversity for this team this year:
“First of all, it’s never easy to have a coaching change in the middle of the season. That’s one. Credit to Gabi (Heinze) and his staff. I’ve said from day one that I have all the respect in the world for them, we gave everything we had under them. The coaching change then happens and Gonzalo comes in and a little bit different tactics. You have to get used to that. We had several injuries, those are all little adversities that you have to overcome. You have a guy like Emerson Hyndman tearing his ACL early in the year, that was another adversity for us as a team to overcome. But you are going to face adversity every single season. We need to be able to face that adversity head on and keep our head down and keep working hard and get better as a team and individually. We have all the potential to do that.”
Now, here’s my take. I’m truly grateful no one really used the pitch dimensions as an excuse, because professional teams should be able to find a way to win regardless. It’s classy from a club perspective. But here’s my rant. Yankee Stadium is the embarrassment of MLS soccer (baseball) pitches, and let me take a quick moment to state that I really don’t care if that sentiment is overused; there is absolutely no reason for a league pumping out expansion teams year after year to be allowing one of its teams to be playing on a baseball field.
NYCFC and MLS fans in general deserve better, period.
I drove by a beautiful, purpose-built soccer pitch near Chattanooga, Tennessee today that belongs to a high-school team, and that field probably would have fit just as many fans that decided to show up to a playoff game in one of the United States’ largest cities. Having to watch any team play on a baseball field (or football field, for that matter, but at least that’s palatable) in the playoffs makes me long for the postseason to go back to a home and away leg. Anyway, rant over.
On a personal note, though, I want to thank everyone who reads these articles for the warm welcome that I’ve received since coming here to contribute. The supporters of this club are special, as are the writers, journalists (both at DSS and everywhere else), announcers, and every other person who cares about the Five Stripes. There is definitely something special about this club compared to others in this hemisphere, and I’m honored to be able to share my thoughts, joys, and frustrations with all y’all. Here’s to some great off-season content by all of us here at DSS as we all get ready for season six. Vamos, ATL.