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Roll the Tape: A closer look into how Atlanta United defended against the Portland Timbers

Almost a second clean sheet in a row... so, so close...

SOCCER: MAR 18 MLS - Atlanta United FC vs Portland Timbers Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If there was only one word to describe Mercedes-Benz Stadium last Saturday night, it would be “ecstasy.”

Atlanta United fans have waited a long time to watch the team steamroll another team as they did to the Portland Timbers. The attackers really put in a shift, but in a match where the most prominent features were the five goals, the defending can sometimes be overlooked.

So today we’re going to look at three defensive moments from the game to understand what led to the goal (and the non-goal) and how Atlanta avoided any further concessions.

Portland Timbers Goal (jk guys, it’s offside) - Eryk Williamson 2’

I remember watching the ball hitting the back of the net and thinking how the heck did Atlanta give him the time and space to get in a comfortable shooting position and then actually get the shot away?

Well, me from the past, let’s answer that question.

This play all starts from a Portland throw-in just yards from Atlanta’s 18-yard box.

In the frame above, we see Atlanta United set up really well: every player involved is marking someone or covering space that Portland could try to exploit and they have a 9-6 numbers advantage over Portland. Diego Chará realizes this and begins to run into space to free himself from Thiago Almada’s mark (blue arrow).

Almada (circled in yellow) sees Chará running into empty space (blue arrow) and points toward him as if trying to get one of his teammates to pick up the mark on him.

In this position, it should be Ibarra who steps up to pressure Chará (dotted red arrow) for a couple of reasons: for starters, he’s the closest player to the position the Colombian midfielder is running to. Second, Ibarra isn’t actually marking anyone here. In that position, he’d likely be in charge of watching any runners into the box or players who might try to get shots off (spoiler alert), but right now there aren’t any.

Ibarra doesn’t step up in time forcing Miles Robinson to a) cover a longer distance to get to Chará and b) get out of position and lose the mark he already has on Nathan Fogaça.

Chará brings the ball down first-time for his compatriot Santiago Moreno (blue arrow). Since Luiz Araújo (circled in red) was marking Moreno from the other side for the throw-in, the 22-year-old Colombian is free to receive Chará’s pass.

Moreno sees Eryk Williamson wide open in midfield and needs to move the ball as he comes under pressure from Amar Sejdic. He fires a lobbed ball toward Williamson that takes a deflection off Almada, but not enough to impede it from reaching its target (blue arrow).

With Williamson in possession, just look at how much space he has in front of him (big yellow circle). The closest players that could pressure him would either be Almada or Ibarra and even then they’re both still far enough to give the American midfielder enough time to make up his mind.

Fortunately, Atlanta’s defenders are on top of things at the back and are limiting Portland’s passing options into dangerous areas. Jaroslaw Niezgoda - probably the player in the most dangerous position - is tightly marked by both Andrew Gutman and Juanjo Purata (dotted red arrows).

Without any good passing options open, Williamson decides to take matters into his own hands.

As Williamson charges toward Atlanta’s box (blue arrow), Ibarra steps up to stop him (red arrow)...

... but is beaten by Williamson who now has space and time near the box...

... to attempt a long-range strike on Atlanta’s goal. The shot goes in and Portland momentarily celebrates what would have been a beautiful goal had it not been overturned after a VAR review on the grounds that Niezgoda (circled in red) was interfering with Guzan’s view of the play while in an offside position.


  • Ibarra has been good this season, but this is one of the plays where I think he could’ve done better. He’s too slow to close down Chará and then Williamson beats him too easily to then allow a shot that hits the back of the net. Fortunately for Atlanta, the goal was waived off and Ibarra was bailed out from taking a large part of the blame for the Five Stripes going down a goal early.
  • Atlanta United actually executed a really good and organized offside trap when they saw Niezgoda start to make his run (that’s why neither Purata nor Gutman ran back with him, they knew he’d be offside), but that kind of maneuver is very risky. What the defenders were intending was for Williamson to pass, not shoot. This is why you don’t see any of Atlanta players protesting to referee Ted Unkel after the play. Atlanta got lucky this time, but they need to be careful when doing this in the future.
  • Atlanta’s overall defensive positioning throughout this play is pretty good. Most everyone knew who they were supposed to be marking and, save for some miscommunication and a couple of individual errors, the play could have been an example of the Five Stripes’ solid defensive shape.

Big Chance - Portland Timbers 55’

Mistakes can be costly, but mistakes at the back? Those are usually very expensive. Atlanta nearly learned that the hard way in this play.

It all starts with Atlanta United playing out from the back. Robinson tries to progress the play with a pass to Ibarra (blue arrow). That would be totally fine normally, except Ibarra decides to look back (circled in yellow) at Williamson at the EXACT second that Robinson sends the ball in his direction.

What’s worse is that the ball’s trajectory is about a foot to Ibarra’s right. Had he seen it coming in time, he could have moved in front of it with ease. But, since he only saw it at the last second, the ball just rolled past him for Williamson to collect easily.

Now Atlanta has to quickly transition to defense as four Timbers attackers start a counterattack. Williamson advances a few steps (dotted blue arrow) before playing the ball into space (solid blue arrow) for Chará to chase (yellow arrow).

Notice that throughout this entire play, Portland’s attackers remain central rather than trying to spread out. Recognizing that the danger is in the middle, both of Atlanta’s center backs move inside (red arrows).

Robinson expertly sees that Williamson’s pass is a little overhit and steps up to pressure Chará who tries to first-time a through ball to Niezgoda (blue arrow) that’s blocked well by Purata (red x).

The ball ends up falling back to Chará, but he really needs to stretch to get to it, so the best he can do at the moment is tap it forward into Fogaça’s path (blue arrow) as Robinson recovers and applies pressure from behind (red arrow).

Fogaça has the ball, but he doesn’t have many options. If he lays it back for Chará, the Colombian will likely find himself closed down and surrounded pretty quickly. If Niezgoda had fully committed to his run (dotted yellow arrow), Fogaça may have had a pretty good option to play him in (dotted blue arrow), but that didn’t happen. What did happen is that Atlanta’s three players running with Chará and Niezgoda get back fast and quickly block the through ball as an option (red arrows). The only thing left for Fogaça to do is try and take on Sejdic to get a shot off (solid blue arrow).

Fogaça gets his shot off, but it’s well wide of the goal (blue arrow).


  • Whooo boy that could’ve been much worse than it actually ended up being. Atlanta’s quick reaction to the turnover was instrumental in keeping Portland out. Everything Atlanta did as soon as the ball changed hands was good: the center backs tucking in and closing down the incoming attackers, Purata’s great tackle to stop Chará’s pass and the way each player was aware enough to know which spaces to cover.
  • There are two sides I could see people taking as to whose fault it was that Atlanta turned the ball over at the beginning of this play: either it's Robinson’s fault for passing to someone who wasn’t looking or Ibarra’s for looking away when he was being passed to. Personally, I think this is on Ibarra. Robinson was very clearly getting ready to pass to him with the way his body was oriented. Ibarra was probably relying on the pass being played to his feet and thought he’d have time for a quick scan to decide what to do next. Unfortunately, he was wrong this time. As the old saying goes: “don’t take your eye off the ball.”

Portland Timbers Goal (for real this time) - Tega Ikoba 82’

The sequence began after some frantic passing by the Timbers trying to work through Atlanta United’s press.

Here we have Justin Rasmussen under pressure and with few options due to some effective marking on Atlanta’s part. The only open option he sees is Williamson, so he passes the ball to him (blue arrow).

Portland saw how effective Atlanta’s long switches of play were earlier and have decided to try it for themselves. Williamson sees Diego Gutierrez’s run (yellow arrow) and plays a perfect ball over to him (blue arrow). With the play now on his side, Gutman moves over to close down Gutierrez (red arrow).

Gutman does his best, but Gutierrez gets the better of him. The 23-year-old patiently makes his way into the box and finds an opening for a lobbed cross to Tega Ikoba (blue arrow).

Because I think some people may ask in the comments, Purata and Sosa (circled in red) are doing the right thing right now: they’re guarding a potential ground pass to Fogaça which would (in theory) be more dangerous than a ball in the air given Atlanta’s high success with aerial duels.

Unfortunately, Atlanta didn’t win the aerial duel on this occasion. Ikoba jumps well and is able to head the ball to Guzan’s near post...

... which manages to get past the veteran goalkeeper to give Portland a consolation goal.


  • My first reaction to this goal was “Guzan could’ve done better.” It’s not a particularly fast header and it’s hit pretty much in his direction. In the replay, it looks like he sort of falls awkwardly instead of diving and can’t get there in time.
  • Atlanta United has conceded just three goals this season. This goal and the one San Jose scored followed a pattern: a long switch of play to Atlanta’s left side and then a lobbed cross from inside the box to a striker who pounces with a header. There are a few subtle differences but for the most part, the core of the two plays are the same. Also, all three goals that Atlanta has conceded came from the left side. Now, I’m not here to blame any one player in particular, but I just thought that was interesting to point out.
  • This goal ruined what would’ve been the team’s second clean sheet in a row. Gonzalo Pineda has always mentioned how important it is to him that Atlanta keep a clean sheet and - although he was happy for the win - he expressed his disappointment that they couldn’t hold their opponents scoreless. If you look back at the replay after the ball goes in, the players are also visibly frustrated. The score was 4-1 with just eight minutes left in the game, by all accounts the concession was inconsequential, and yet it felt to them like Portland had scored a tying or winning goal. It’s that kind of attitude that makes better players - that mindset of not being happy with just a win, but how you win. That’s all been part of the philosophy that Pineda is pushing on these players and the message is getting through. I was initially very skeptical of Pineda (and was even admittedly part of the crowd who wanted him out after last season), but he’s showing what he can do this season with a healthy roster and players that can execute his game plan.

That’s all for this week’s defense analysis. What did you think of this article and which of the FIVE FREAKING GOALS should I look at for this week’s attacking breakdown?