Atlanta United strolled up to the the Music City for a chance to battle its way into the U.S. Open Cup round of 16 and defend their title, but they ultimately fell short after 120 minutes of incredibly inconsistent football. Beyond the obvious frustrating scoreline, this match had a bit of everything, from great combination play by Atlanta in the first half, a Nashville penalty kick, a disallowed Walker Zimmerman goal, suspect officiating, and a tactical chess match that ultimately saw the Five Stripes lose out in extra time 3-2. Oh, and Andrew Gutman suffered an injury that looks to be collarbone or shoulder-related.
This 2022 version of Atlanta United may simply go down as the unluckiest team ever, but contrary to one line of thought, not all is doom and gloom. Moreno and Gutman combined with Almada to open up the scoring, and Moreno played in a ball to Araujo that he turned into an absolute wonder goal. While the defensive frustrations are alive and well, at least the ball is finding the back of the net. Let’s dive into some more thoughts after this Open Cup heartbreaker.
Atlanta Has An Identity and Needs to Accept It
Earlier in the season the topic of Atlanta’s identity was thrown around quite often, with no one able to pin down exactly who the Five Stripes were trying to become. It was clear they wanted to play attacking soccer, sure, but they floated through multiple matches where the attack looked dangerous but just couldn’t find the back of the net. The idea was always “keep up the same idea and the goals will come.” Well, Atlanta United has now scored six goals in two matches after only scoring three in all MLS competitions throughout April. The attacking soccer is finally exhibiting the bite everyone was promised now that Marcelino Moreno, Thiago Almada, and Luiz Araujo are combining along with a speedy striker in Ronaldo Cisneros who is making all the right runs. It’s not perfect, but the Five Stripes look dangerous in the direct, attacking style that gets fans on their feet (and that the players seem to enjoy).
This Open Cup match nailed home why this version of Atlanta United can’t afford to take their foot off that attacking gas pedal. It’s their bread and butter, it’s their identity. This team is not built to sit back and perform any sort of soccer tactic remotely related to parking a bus or relying on the defense to hold a lead. At this point, the overall defensive element of the team just isn’t good enough, from open play to the obvious issue of set pieces and crosses, and it’s only been exacerbated with the loss of Miles Robinson. However, this has been a season-long issue and not something isolated to the Nashville match in particular, but giving up 3 (probably should have been 4) unanswered goals may be the nail that drives home the idea that Atlanta United has to put its faith in its high-powered attack and settle for some absolute barnstormer games.
In this match it seemed Pineda tried to match Nashville’s tactical change after the first half to play further out wide and whip in crosses by switching to some form of a 3-5-2 to cover the wings better, but it ended up completely dissolving any semblance of normalcy in the midfield which then stifled the attack. The back line could only kick the ball around and waste time for so long, and the reality is the change still didn’t end up cutting down on the same types of dangerous balls and goals Atlanta has given away time and time again. Playing defense is one thing, but relying on your defense to win matches and hold leads like it’s 2019 again is another road entirely. Atlanta has to accept its identity of 90+ minute attacking soccer, because its defensive capabilities as they stand are a liability.
Matheus Rossetto and Franco Ibarra Are Key
Matheus Rossetto seems to be slowly growing into the role of a leader at midfield, and the way he and Franco Ibarra work to open up space to allow Thiago Almada and Marcelino Moreno to push forward is when Atlanta United look the most dangerous. Most of the time the focus is on Almada, as it should be, but give the midfield guys credit for working together to allow that movement up the pitch. Going back to the previous point, they’re a key in the attacking identity of this team along with Santiago Sosa and Emerson Hyndman. When they combine well playing out of the back it opens up a ton of room for Moreno, Almada, and Araujo to settle in to their workspace, which subsequently allows Cisneros to stretch the line out even further.
When the opposition then tries to flood the midfield to account for the ease of movement, Atlanta just needs to then switch to playing some more direct long- or through-balls like we saw over the weekend against Chicago. Add in an Andrew Gutman, Caleb Wiley, or Brooks Lennon flying up the wings and now there are plenty of options that don’t require any real formational change, plus, it helps leave the defense intact because it’s not as difficult to for the midfield to track back in emergencies.
Also, on the same topic, Franco Ibarra has been one of the most underrated Atlanta United players this season. His pressure, tackles and, in this match particularly, his defensive runs to help get the back line out of trouble have been astounding. He seems to be turning the corner on the portion of his game that needed fine-tuning, which was the crispness and cleanliness of his duels and tackles, and it’s paying off extremely well for the team as a whole (Yes, I know he received a yellow, but the inconsistency of the refs in this match could be an entire post).
The Luck Has to Change
We may just have to accept that 2022 Atlanta United is the unluckiest sports team ever. The injuries seem never-ending at this point. Friday would likely be the earliest anyone would have a definitive answer on Gutman, but barring a miracle it’s a sure bet he won't be around for the match against New England Revolution. On one hand, it’s nice that the goal luck seems to have taken a better turn, but if the injury situation isn’t resolved the Five Stripes are going to start requiring volunteers to fill out a lineup sheet. With Caleb Wiley uncertain, it may be that supporters see a bit more of Mikey Ambrose in the meantime. No matter what, though, Gutman’s defensive presence on that left side will be sorely missed.
So, how do you change luck? I have no clue, maybe we all need to figure out the right mixture of burning sage and doing the correct dance. However, sometimes you can make your own luck, and that’s what the front office is going to have to do come July 7th and the summer transfer window. The Mulraney deal seems to have cleared up the space and brought in money for someone in the FO’s crosshairs, but whoever they invite needs to be a home run. To that point, there are two main attributes any player would need that would help bring some luck to the Five Stripes. They need to be a.) a starting-caliber defender, preferably center back, and b.) another veteran who knows the league and how to build up the young guys around him. Now that I think about it, maybe this is just a wish list. But it feels lucky.
Also, y’all give our post-match Twitter Spaces a listen and we’d love to have anyone on to chat with us after matches, it’s a good ‘ol time. And after games like this, it’s somewhat therapeutic.