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Four optimistic signs of Atlanta United’s confusing start to 2021

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It’s not gone smoothly, but there’s building blocks in place.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Seattle Sounders FC Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United somehow became the first team in MLS to go into Seattle and take a point away from the Sounders on Sunday afternoon. The Five Stripes went up to Cascadia and were rescued by Josef Martinez via a late penalty that gave them a 1-1 draw. Despite creating virtually nothing in the attack all match, Gabriel Heinze’s side walked away from arguably the best team in the league with a result away from home.

Instead of harping on the exact same creation issues that have plagued the attack for basically the whole season, it’s time to focus on the positives. It’s easy to always dwell on the things that aren’t going well that we can lose sight of the things that are. These are some of the positives we’ve seen so far this season.

Setting The Stage

There were always going to be growing pains at the start of the Heinze era. Maybe we didn’t expect the attack to struggle so much with creating clear chances, but that’s obstacle that faces this side. Despite creating very little in the way of scoring opportunities through six MLS matches, Atlanta United find themselves in a fine position in the Eastern conference standings. With nine points they sit in fourth place with one less match played than two of the three teams above them.

Fixing the attacking issues isn’t going to be easy. There isn’t a clear answer. It could come from more training or it may have to be a result of some roster moves down the line. The good news is that even with the anemic attacking output, the team is still getting results on a consistent basis. As long as they can keep treading water while they figure out their attacking problems, it bodes really well for their playoff positioning come the fall.

The King Awakens

Josef Martinez’s return from injury has been one of the most talked about stories of 2021 so far. There have been many takes and prognostications about his short and long-term production viability. Will he ever get back to the league’s attacking elite? Only time will tell, but very early signs are promising. For as excruciating as Josef’s surgery ordeal seems to have been, for him to already be starting regularly and back to being the first name on the team sheet before June even begins is great news. There’s no doubt that the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Lisandro Lopez’s departure has forced the situation. However, every time Josef steps on the field he’s getting better and more confident. This process was always going to be long one with many unknown variables. But he’s trending in a positive direction and seems to be ahead of schedule as far as match fitness and being able to play consistent minutes is concerned. The final step is now just getting those repetitions and hoping he finds that explosive first step that makes him one of the best to ever play in MLS.

The Intangibles

In this day and age it’s almost taboo to praise intangible characteristics like “grit” or “determination”. However, something must be said for the team’s collective spirit under Gabriel Heinze. The 2020 group were hit with some tough times and didn’t handle them very well at all. Thankfully, this team seems to respond much better to adversity. Whether it’s a disappointing result or an unfortunate event on the field, this group has shown the ability to bounce back. They’ve had plenty of reason to lose confidence or belief with the lack of scoring chances so far this season. But they continue to push until the final whistle every match and have been rewarded with some late-match heroics to earn themselves some results they may not have gotten in the past. As long as that spirit and belief remains under Heinze, things will only get vastly better once the chances start coming their way.

Solid Core

There’s just no sugarcoating the problems in the final third for this team. The good news is that everywhere but that area of the field is looking very good for Heinze’s bunch. Starting with the back line, Miles Robinson and Anton Walkes have been as solid as you could ask for. With Miles returning to his MLS Best XI form and Walkes not far behind, they’ve formed one of the league’s best centerback duos.

The addition of Santiago Sosa was one of the best in the entire league this offseason. His calming influence and ability to run the show from his hybrid defensive midfield/centerback role has been huge for this team. There’s also the emergence of Emerson Hyndman who appears to have settled into way more comfortable role under Heinze. His strengths of holding onto possession and facilitating the ball through the formation seems to be a natural fit for the style the Argentine is trying to implement.

Having this base solidified up the middle is something the new manager has to be pleased with. Now if he and the technical staff could only figure out the winger situation to help the attack succeed.