Atlanta United has very painfully been every inch an average to below average MLS team in 2021 so far. Again, much of this stems from the personnel decisions that were made prior to the 2020 season that saw the team’s talented players sent elsewhere for what can only be described as “reasons” virtually erasing the culture and leadership of the team. In place of them have been some new players that haven’t stepped up. Between Marcelino Moreno’s touch, Ezequiel Barco’s decision making, Jurgen Damm’s overhit crosses, Cubo Torres’ mausoleum of filled with attacking sequences, Erik Lopez’s youth and inexperience, and Jake Mulraney’s occasional adequacy, the attack has sputtered.
In the wake of that several faces have left the front office or been banned from MLS for a few years, however one face remains despite the fact that nearly every decision the team has made has either backfired, not paid off, or been just wrong.
To be fair, Santiago Sosa, Franco Ibarra, Brooks Lennon, and the emergence of George Bello have been bright spots. The backline has been solid for the team, but cracks in that are starting to show as Brad Guzan was critical of the man marking defending used by manager Gabriel Heinze:
This quote from Brad Guzan stuck out to me last night. Man marking for 90 minutes does not seem like a very successful tactic and the players don’t know what to say about it except “we have to be better.” pic.twitter.com/RYTUEMrzRc— Joe Patrick (@japatrick200) June 24, 2021
It’s been a long time since I walked past my unread copy of Inverting the Triangle on my bookshelf, but I’m not sure that the chapter on man marking could convince me that a defensive scheme where one guy messes up and the whole thing falls apart is a great idea. Worse still, the team only has between the game ending on Wednesday night and next one starting on Sunday to fix it.
To this point of the season, Atlanta has more or less had one solid win and then skated by on lucky plays. A quick summary of the season so far: 0-0 at Orlando - getting a point there is good; 3-1 vs Chicago - a nice win, but Chicago is shaping up to be the worst team in the league; 2-1 at New England - the attack wasn’t great and Carles Gil will end up being the MVP this year so... shrug emoji?; 1-1 at Miami - giving up a lead late in an overall OK performance against a pretty bad team; 1-0 vs. Montreal - winning is good, but the goal didn’t really come from any kind of plan or overall game strategy; 1-1 at Seattle - a point on the road is good, but the goal didn’t really come from any kind of plan or overall game strategy, also lol, Seattle bunkered at home for 80 minutes; 2-2 vs. Nashville/Philly - really? Twice, really?
For 1-0 at NYCFC of Red Bull Arena - the team was out of ideas after one minute, and defensively bad against the NYCFC B team, the game was over once Maxi Moralez and Anton Tinnerholm checked in. Here’s a highlight of how New York was able to control the game so well:
James Sands v Atlanta pic.twitter.com/jrWOjlKzB6— chris russell (@watke_) June 25, 2021
That’s just the center back calmly dribbling the ball forward 40 yards at a time. Pay no attention to the bit of commentary in the video about “us” not understanding the game at all, as a pundit and previewer I’m extremely sure that I know exactly what every player will do and how they will play. Especially Cubo.
This concludes our journey through 9/34 of the MLS season. I’m sad, hold me.
A completely unfamiliar familiar foe
Atlanta’s past meetings with the Red Bulls eventually built a budding rivalry in MLS. The Red Bulls were the team Atlanta couldn’t overcome in their matches until becoming the big boss in the 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs in the famous Chris Armas Blew It series. In 2019 there was the trip to Harrison where Tim Parker was sent off only for the Red Bulls to win 1-0 on a goal by a kid who probably should have gone to Rutgers, and then the late goal by what was left of Bradley Wright-Phillips to steal a point from Atlanta in a 3-3 game at home. Wild stuff.
We won’t talk about 2020.
This year the Red Bulls got rid of Chris Armas and lost Kaku in embarrassing fashion. They’ve retooled a bit also and are back to pressing, running a lot, and playing the kids. Top goal scorer Caden Clark won’t be making the trip to Atlanta because he had his appendix out, but they still have plenty of ways to create goals with forwards Patryk Klimala and Fabio, Frankie Amaya is an exciting attacking midfielder, and Kyle Duncan might be the best attack minded right back in MLS.
The team is agnostic when it comes to formation playing a 4-4-2 diamond against New England, but also playing in a 3-5-2 and 4-2-3-1 on the season. It seems like manager Gerhard Struber is focused more on the style of play using the most in form or fit players rather than trying to force players into a certain formation. In short, they don’t really do anything special tactically, pressing and running a lot can get you pretty far in MLS and the Red Bulls have the youth to do just that.
For Atlanta, the key will be moving the ball quickly, limiting mistakes, and covering quickly on transition when NYRB wins possession. It will be another game where Santiago Sosa will play a key role both in moving the ball forward out of the back and providing cover as a deep midfielder for the backline. The New England Revolution specifically shut him down when the teams played earlier this year and the Red Bulls have the legs to do that this weekend.
Another key will be scoring goals. While the Red Bulls are young and dangerous going forward, they’re young and inexperienced in defense. Options Sean Nealis, 24, Andreas Reyes, 21, and John Tolkin, 18, are not the most experienced players and Atlanta should be able put the ball in the net. New York is also looking for their first road points on the year, so going away from home hasn’t been easy for the young team.
Look, I didn’t say it would be a good meme
Anyway, Atlanta United is going to have to stop a bunch of kids named like Kamson Rutherford Buckley or something if New York isn’t going to get their first point on the road this weekend.