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The AfterMath: LD Alajuelense 0-1 Atlanta United

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Forget soccer, we’re into shooting now

FBL-CRC-USA-ALAJUELENSE-ATLANTA-CONCACAF Photo by EZEQUIEL BECERRA/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to the AfterMath, a new series in which we break down the numbers behind Atlanta United games — the wins and the losses.

The most relevant number in this one, well, it might be one of several.

It could be 41m40s, that being the precise moment that Brad Guzan committed the foul that led to a radical change in the game.

34 would be a good choice too, that being Rocco Rios Novo’s shirt number. 18 would work as well, that being Rios Novo’s age (and probably the number of months it took him to grow that moustache).

In similar vein, 6 would be a good choice, the number worn by unfortunate Alajuelense defender José Salvatierra. Unfortunate because he apparently thinks he has a face that looks like a hand.

Or rather, the key number is 2. That being the number of key refereeing decisions made in the game. He got them both right.

The foul by Guzan was correctly, if belatedly, ruled a red. Although the center referee initially pulled a yellow, which would have correct for the foul in and of itself, about a minute later he changed his mind and upgraded it to a red, ruling it a DOGSO. The delay was likely due to conferring with his assistant, who would have had a better view of the potential goal-scoring opportunity.

The other decision was the penalty for a handball in the box. I watched this one numerous times from all three angles shown in the broadcast slowed down to quarter speed (YouTube TV mostly sucks, but its browser version has that very nifty function) before concluding that the referee got that one right too. Here’s the proof. The shot is very blurry, but the contact is clearly with the arm:

Salviaterra did end up with a bloody nose on the play, although George Bello (who after all had the best angle on the foul) helpfully made that invisible to the ref. But there’s no way it came from direct contact with the ball. His head is ducked under his arm.

Anyway, the two key incidents came about 3 minutes before and after half time. Which rather ruins the application to this match of Jimmy Greaves’ venerable cliché that it’s a game of two halves. The game ended changing twice.

Initially, the game was all Atlanta. The visitors dominated possession so thoroughly that even after letting Alajuelense control most of the ball in the second half, the Five Stripes still finished the game with 51.4% possession. But here’s the odd part of that: Atlanta’s run of possession was the final five minutes of the first half, when the team had a whopping 71.4% of the play.

And that continued immediately after half time and up until the penalty. That is, despite being a man down, and even with the formation adjustment, Atlanta had no intention of backing down. They only did so once they were up a goal. Even then, it was not exactly a classic case of parking the bus.

Nevertheless, Atlanta had a total of 8 shots in the game, of which 4 were on target. There were no shots attempted after the penalty, which means that they took 7 shots in the first half. 5 of those were in the first 15 minutes. United came out all guns blazing. Obviously, they were also on the attack early in the second half.

How were they able to do this so smoothly? As it turns out, the team’s initial formation did not need much adaptation to respond to the red card. MLSsoccer.com has the initial formation as 3-4-2-1, with Bello and Brooks Lennon in wingback positions (CONCACAF has the starting lineup as 4-5-1, but, you know, CONCACAF). Even early in the game, Bello was playing in what seemed like a standard fullback role, Lennon more as a true wingback. With Santiago Sosa playing as a deep defensive central mid, as we have already seen in preseason, the lineup could play as listed, as a Christmas tree 4-3-2-1, or as a 5-3-1-1.

So it wasn’t much of a stretch to have Lennon drop back into a fullback role and play permanently with 5 at the back and flip the 4 remaining players into a box shape (actually a true diamond, because everyone knows a diamond can’t stand on its point). A 5-2-2, that is. But is that truly defensive? Well yes and no. it clearly strengthens the back line, but also leaves the team with two forwards. Even late in the game, we saw how that could work with Ezequiel Barco and Josef Martinez making a late breakaway that ended up with Josef offside (despite apparently being slow).

Those blazing guns weren’t about to cool off. Here’s Heinze right after Guzan got the boot:

He immediately knew what he wanted to do. Although apparently Lisandro Lopez needed some clarification a few minutes later:

El Gringo? No, he is now the Masked Bandit.

Joking aside, this tells us two things. One, Heinze was totally unfazed by the change in the game. He knew exactly what he was going to do. Two, he had his team prepared to execute on the adjustment. And with a little explanation, they were able to do just that.

Philosophically, we can think of this as formational fluidity. Which is a hallmark of Bielsa-style coaching. That the team got tested this way so early under the new regime shows that the players and coaches are in sync on all levels. The coaches know what they want from the players, and the players have bought into that system and already know how to play it.

And that is the real takeaway from this first game under Heinze. Does it bode well for the future? Hell yes it does.

None of this takes anything away from Rios Novo’s heroics, of course. It may be the Heinze era in Atlanta now, but we also have Novo Ordo Seclorum coming upon us soon.

And all of this is very good news.