In the way of season openers, this has to be one of the most dramatic in MLS history. For 90 minutes it seemed as though Atlanta United was poised to taste defeat in its encounter with San Jose Earthquakes. But that all changed when World Champion Thiago Almada attacked.
Two stoppage-time bangers turned the game on its head at the death and Mercedes-Benz Stadium exploded with euphoria.
Now that we’ve had some time to recover from the emotional rollercoaster that was Saturday’s season opener, let’s take a closer look at a couple of key moments from the game and break down what exactly happened.
San Jose Earthquakes Goal - Jeremy Ebobisse 12’
The only goal from open play in the game came from San Jose building up from the back. In this play, we see Quakes center-back Rodrigues trying to find a way to move the ball upfield.
He already has Jackson Conway closing in fast on his right (yellow arrow), so he only really has two options: attempt a pass to Miguel Trauco on the far touchline (dotted blue arrow) and risk Luiz Araújo stepping forward to intercept (red arrow) or run forward into the space to try to open up other options (blue arrow). In this case, Rodrigues opts for the latter.
Now, here’s where we see Atlanta United’s first mistake. In this particular frame, Rodrigues is getting ready to run into the space between Araújo and Matheus Rossetto. Under pressure from behind by Jackson Coway, he takes a heavy touch (yellow arrow) that Araújo steps up to intercept (red arrow pointing down). Seeing the run of Rodrigues, Rossetto starts lightly jogging toward the space the Quakes defender is running into. Why a light jog? Perhaps because he was expecting Araújo’s tackle to succeed, in which case Rossetto would be in a prime position to recover the ball...
...except Araújo completely misses the tackle...
... and now the alarm bells are ringing for Atlanta United because suddenly Rodrigues has acres of space to run into (solid blue arrow) and two passing options to teammates (dotted blue arrows). Remember Rossetto’s light jog? Well, now it’s a sprint as he has to catch up to Rodrigues and stop him from advancing any further (red arrow).
Uh oh. Rodrigues sees Rossetto coming and pulls the ball back at just the right time (blue arrow), letting the Five Stripes’ midfielder run right past him (red arrow) and giving him more time and space. Keep an eye on Cristian Espinoza (yellow circle) and note the massive gap of space between him and Andrew Gutman (purple circle), the man who should be marking him.
Seeing his teammate was afforded space, Espinoza (yellow circle) raises his hand to call for the ball as he makes a run into the space on the right side of Atlanta’s 18-yard box. Rodrigues picks up his head, sees Espinoza making the run and delivers a really good long ball to play him in. You can also see in this frame Andrew Gutman (purple circle) using his peripheral vision to try and locate who Rodrigues is looking at. It’s around this time that Jeremy Ebobisse realizes that a chance is on and starts running toward the box (red arrow).
It’s crisis mode for Atlanta. Gutman, now finally caught up with Espinoza, closes him down inside the box (solid red arrow). Espinoza tries to hold up play until teammates can get into the box (blue arrow). Meanwhile, Cade Cowell on the far side makes a darting run (yellow arrow) in front of Miles Robinson to get into the box and draw Robinson forward (dotted red arrow) to open space for Ebobisse.
Cowell continues his run and Robinson stays with him (yellow arrow), giving Ebobisse all the room he needs to get to the far post (red arrow). At this point, Brooks Lennon (purple circle) is the only player who can stop him...
...but he’s already too late. Espinoza fires in the cross...
... which finds Ebobisse open and ready to pounce. With that header, the Paris native gave the visitors a 1-0 lead.
Before we move on, let me go over a few quick takeaways from this sequence:
- This attack was a very organized and well-rehearsed routine. From the accurate long switch of play to the strategic runs inside the box that opened space for teammates, San Jose’s movements seemed almost instinctual and they paid off superbly.
- Many of San Jose’s following attacks followed this pattern: a long switch of play to an awaiting winger followed by a cross to the back post. Eventually, Atlanta adapted and was able to avoid a second concession, so credit to them for that.
- Defense is a team effort. It starts with the pressure from the forwards and needs to be executed as a unit. The missed tackles, the spaces opened and the lost marks are all things that the team needs to improve before they start facing the more consistently well-drilled offenses in the league.
Let’s switch gears and talk about how Atlanta did on the attack. Both goals were a result of set pieces, so not much to analyze there. Instead, let’s look at one of Atlanta’s chances from open play.
Atlanta United Great Chance - Lennon 85’
This one starts from the middle of the field. Franco Ibarra carries the ball forward looking for options.
Seeing everyone else marked and needing a goal to get back in the game, he fires a long ball over to Gutman (circled in red).
Gutman receives and immediately has to deal with the pressure from Carlos Akapo. Notice that in this frame, he can’t pass to Etienne (circled in yellow) because he’s offside. His only other options are trying to lob a ball to Almada, Amar Sejdic or Araújo, (circled in red) which would be risky given the pressure he’s under, or taking on Akapo and driving forward. Gutman opts for the latter.
Gutman succeeds and now has the space to play a piercing through-ball into Lennon waiting behind the penalty spot (blue arrow). Miguel Berry sees the play developing and makes a run toward the far edge of the 6-yard box (yellow arrow), dragging Jonathan Mensah with him and opening more room for Lennon to receive Gutman’s pass. Etienne, now onside, runs around Jack Skahan and prepares to make a new run toward the goal.
Good news: Lennon receives the ball inside the box. Bad news: he’s in a really awkward position to hit the ball well and has multiple defenders trying to keep him from turning to face the goal. In this position, he can’t pass to Berry because he’s offside (yellow X), but he could lay it off for an incoming Etienne Jr (red arrow) who has more space, better body position to hit the ball cleanly and is free to use his preferred right foot. Ultimately, Lennon decides to take on the shot which goes wide of the goal (dotted blue arrow).
This was one of Atlanta United’s better attacks from open play in the game. The passing was spot-on, players were making runs and the team actually tried to get into the box rather than take a pot-shot from outside. The only thing missing might have been a bit of communication for Lennon to let Etienne take that shot, but overall it was a great chance and a good example of just how dangerous this team can be.
And that wraps it up for this week’s visual analysis. Let us know in the comments what you think and whether you’d like to see more of these in the future.