For the third straight match, Atlanta United looked like a competent and capable soccer team. That fact in itself — considering how inconsistent and frustrating the 2022 season has been — is a massive win for the Five Stripes. Unfortunately, a comprehensive performance was only enough to muster a scoreless draw against the Supporters’ Shield-leading Philadelphia Union. Regardless of the result, there are clear signs that the team is finally adapting to Gonzalo Pineda’s style of play and that can only mean good things for the future. Here are a couple of thoughts on why the optimism should be flowing around Atlanta right now:
- I will go ahead a preface this column by admitting that it’s going to sound a lot like my previous one, where I applauded the progress that the team has made in recent matches. As basic as it seems, the simple fact that we’ve seen three consecutive matches with the same lineup and same formation with similar success is a huge milestone. It has seemed like all season the team has been searching for the right combination of players and tactics. It certainly seems like they’ve found the latter, while the former is still up for debate in some instances. The shift for the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 (whatever you want to call it) has been a godsend for the players and us fans watching every match. Even when it doesn’t produce goals, the team just looks more fluid in attack and actually appear as if they have a grasp on what they’re trying to accomplish at all times.
- Being able to repeat these tactics with similar effectiveness is what I mean when I say the team is building an identity under Pineda. If everyone understands their role and expectations within the team shape is guaranteed to build confidence throughout the squad no matter who the manager picks for the lineup. That’s something that has been missing throughout the season. Once that identity is fully engrained hopefully that will help the club acquire the players that fit it.
- One very encouraging aspect of this recent setup is how everyone seems to have bought in emotionally along with tactically. A team that has struggled mightily with shape and discipline all season completely and utterly smothered the best team in all of MLS for a whole 90 minutes. Any time Philladelphia attempted to hit on the counter they were either forced into a mistake or run into a brick wall setup by Atlanta’s midfield and backline. It truly was a thing of beauty to see Jim Curtin pouting like a five-year old in the grocery store after being denied a candy bar when Atlanta shut them down on every counter attempt.
- Of course there are still issues. Frankly, this match shouldn’t have even been close. This should’ve been Atlanta cruising to an easy 2-0 win. But unfortunately they are just missing some quality in the final third, as has been the case all season. Pineda can put all the pieces in the right place and pull all the correct strings, but if there’s no final product, there’s really not much else he can do. If 2017-19 Josef Martinez was out there for this match we’d have seen the equivalent of Deion Sanders high-stepping to the end zone, instead we’re left with a frustrating result. This is what I mean when I say that the mold appears to be taking shape and now it’s up to the club to go out this offseason and find the right ingredients. While it seemed for the majority of the season that this roster needed a massive overhaul, players like Santiago Sosa and Alan Franco coming into their own recently has softened that theory. A few crucial additions to the roster in the winter — a dynamic, match-winning striker being at the top of the list — and this team could easily be back to being competitive next season.
- Surprisingly, thanks for their good run of form, Atlanta are still alive in the playoff race. I can confidently say I’ve gone from actively hoping they don’t make it in for fear of getting smacked in the first round to hoping they do just so we can continue to see this new style get tested. I’ve enjoyed watching this team play soccer for the last three matches, something I have not said much since 2019. Hopefully this is just the beginning.