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LOGICAL & REASONABLE: What the goals in Atlanta United vs. Nashville might say about the team in 2021

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Look, just tell me if the forces of randomness thing is right and the we’re going to all live on Mars with Heinze or if it’s the Houston Dynamo thing and the team is going to finish 6th

MLS: Nashville SC at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United beat the Nashville Soccer Club 2-0 for 80 minutes on Saturday. It was a fantastic and dominant performance. The goals were vintage Atlanta United hair on fire displays of soccer brilliance and skill. In defense, the backline held strong even without a starting center back and the team really looked like they were gelling. Then in the last 10 minutes that basically fell apart.

That said, it was the first really complete performance from the team. The win against Chicago was nice but there was plenty to be slightly concerned about there. The late goals in the two prior matches were... maybe not undeserved, but seemed like more of a random occurrence rather than any kind of evidence that the team had put together the tactics that Gabriel Henize wants to use or even has good players.

Soccer is about moments and the most important moments are when teams score goals. OK, saves or blocks or key tackles or big misses are also important, but at the end of the day... uh, scoreboard.

First, let’s talk about the good things, the goals Atlanta scored. They both just blew apart the Nashville defense and showed what the team can do going forward on the break at least.

Here’s why that was such a special goal according to me:

The second one was also really good and fun.

Here’s what made this one good:

I didn’t realize this but Joe WIllis is the keeper for Nashville. I’m going to go ahead and write off most of their defensive prowess in 2020 to the off field difficulty that everyone was facing because Joe Willis is an OK keeper, not a keeper on the best defensive team in MLS - not in 2021 for sure.

Anyway, what the goals say about the team is that Atlanta United’s attack is back baby. The team might not be breaking down sides methodically through possession yet, but if anyone is up for a track meet, especially a team with a geriatric defensive midfielder like Dax holding down the middle of the pitch like Nashville, then the Five Stripes are game and the goals will come.

The first one also says that Miles Robinson the elite long ball passer is here, opposing forwards and midfielders give the young man space at their peril. It also says that playing centrally and in the attack, like he will when Ezequiel Barco is out for indeterminate amounts of time all season, Marcelino Moreno is the Julio Jones replacement.

The second one is the track meet thing, but the amount of chaos that Lopez, Josef, Moreno, Bello, and Mulraney or Jurgen Damm and maybe Hyndman and Lennon can be an anarchic joy. Power football Atlanta United is back.

So the second goal that the team allowed...

The first one was fine, Nashville scored. Whatever, they passed it around and they scored. The second one is worth a much deeper dive because it makes me really worried on a deep level about what it says Atlanta United is in 2021 depending on what actually happened on the play.

Here it is at full speed:

Here’s how it sets up.

Before the pass Nashville takes a classic soccer cue and just decides to center the ball, like an AYSO team. At this point it seems like the defense is set up in a favorable math problem: 3 defenders minus 3 attackers should equal zero goals. Sosa marking space as the 4th defender helps this more, in fact it should equal negative one goals. It’s just math, I have a master’s degree from Georgia Tech, trust me here.

Both Lennon and Hyndman close on Dax or whoever at the top of the 18 to stop him from shooting what looks like a not very high percentage shot from Nick de Leon land. Nashville smashing a hopeful shot down a goal late looking at a 4 v 3 is probably a good idea for them because they don’t look like they’re going to get much else out of this possession and maybe something good happens if you just do that. It’s a strategy that has made Bruce Arena’s career.

Lennon/Hyndman fail to block it and the shot hits the Nashville striker and bounces toward an unmarked Mukhtar who is in the danger zone in the right defensive area. He’s much closer to the goal than the initial shot from Nick de Leon territory that Lennon, the right back, and Hyndman decided to contest.

Well, despite the play setting up to score negative one goals, Nashville did score a goal. It turned out that the right defensive area where Mukhtar occupied the danger zone was left undefended by Atlanta United. For example, the right back was not there. While the overall play was a 4 v 3, in the right defensive area where Mukhtar occupied the danger zone it was actually a 2 v 1. That means it had two attackers and one defender and the result was positive one goals.

In the end Atlanta gave up the goal dropping a deuce out of a possible three points. The team has lived by the late goal but Saturday it died by the late goal. Still, the team has played all three undefeated teams in the league going into the weekend and remained undefeated against them, so that’s good... Or something. At least it’s not bad.

What’s this mean?

There are two ways of looking at the play. Either Lennon and Hyndman made the right call to contest the shot from Nick de Leon land and leave Mukhtar unmarked. Dax or whoever fired off a hopeful shot from there and it led to a lucky goal. After all, it wasn’t like he played a clever throughball to play the attacker through or even tried to pass to the Nashville striker. Sometimes the forces of randomness are extra cruel in soccer and unpredictable, unplayable stuff happens. Just ask Gyasi Zardes. Maybe in the end Lennon and Hyndman were both a step late though and the shot got off leading to a lucky deflection and late goal.

OR....................

Lennon or Hyndman messed up and didn’t cover Mukhtar leaving him open to steal a point on a lucky play. Teams want opponents to shoot from 20 yards out, it’s hard to score that far from goal, especially for Dax if that was him. Mukhtar was closer to the goal, it’s easier to score if you are near the goal. This is a bad mistake by two experienced players who should know better especially since they trained in England or whatever.

This is the kind of shambolic defending that MLS teams have passed off as standard league practice since 1996. Defense in the league is atrocious usually (for example, many people consider Chad Marshall the best MLS defender of all time), but so far that hasn’t applied to Atlanta United. In four seasons the team gave up 1.17, 1.29, 1.26, and 1.30 goals per game. For as high scoring as Atlanta is, this is a great record in MLS.

The reason it’s good is that it means that the team is slightly transcending the league when it comes to defense. This year Atlanta United is just allowing one goal a game. That’s good, if you don’t let the other team score very often, you can win more easily. However, In the scenario where Lennon or Hyndman or both messed up, then that is just a facade.

The entire point of Gabriel Heinze’s system is the idea of Positional Play where players, regardless of where they are nominally positioned, will serve different roles based on where they actually are on the pitch. Players will change roles as they move about the field and if they vacate their area on the field a teammate should shift over to fill that role. So if a right back closes at the top of the 18 it would presumably mean a teammate should shift over to the right back’s previously occupied zone to fill his role.

This sounds like Total Football, but if you call it Total Football someone will tell you that nobody has played Total Football for 30 years or something in order to demonstrate that they are better than you.

Anyway, if the Lennon/Hyndman messed up thesis is true it means that perhaps the team is not getting it when it comes to what Heinze is saying they should do. While the team’s one goal a game record thus far is impressive, it could just be a gilded mark belying the fact that the defense is just getting lucky and the team is actually just the Houston Dynamo now: it just shows that the team was built to finish in 6th place and that’s where they’ll end up.

But, if the forces of randomness idea is right, then all it will take is more teams to decide to either not bunker like Seattle and Montreal or not press like Philadelphia and Atlanta United in 2021 could be headed STRAIGHT TO THE MOOOOOOOOOOOOON.

Is there a question there?

Right, Logical & Reasonable is a post where I ask a question. Thanks for reading all 5,000 words of this and making it to the question part.

There are two wolves fighting inside Atlanta United - the one that does positional play and scores goals and wins games and is fun and good and not frauds or the Houston Dynamo and another that has players mess up defensive switches and give up late leads making the work that seemed like perfection all game long look like a big joke that might as well have Maxi Urutti as the striker. Which wolf will win the fight?