I love the sound of the train horn at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. There’s something about hearing that darn thing that just warms my heart. Like that feeling a kid gets as they’re riding in the backseat when suddenly the car pulls alongside the cabin of an 18-wheeler. The driver looks at the kid and the kid with a wide grin on their face looks back as they raise their arm and pump it twice. The driver knows what to do - in fact, he relishes this moment as much as the kid does - HONK!
Pure joy. Anyways, the sound of the train horn echoed plenty of times throughout the Benz last Saturday as Atlanta United embarrassed the Portland Timbers 5-1. We’ve already talked about the defense, so today we’re going to break down some of the plays that led to goals.
Atlanta United Goal - Caleb Wiley 24’
The opening goal of the match came as a result of a quick counterattack. It all starts with Portland’s Claudio Bravo sending a cross into Atlanta’s box.
Bravo’s attempt is cleared by Miles Robinson and flies out toward a waiting Thiago Almada (blue arrow). Note that since Portland were on the attack, they had a lot of men forward. In just this frame, you can count nine of their 11 players.
Almada might be skilled with his feet, but he isn’t very tall. He goes to contest the ball against Diego Chará and the Colombian wins fairly easily, heading the ball in front of him to Franco Ibarra (red arrow). As this is happening, players from both sides start making their way out of Atlanta’s box including Caleb Wiley and Luiz Araújo who are going to be making runs parallel to Almada throughout this play (blue arrows).
Ibarra first-times a ball over the top (blue arrow) for his compatriot Almada to chase (purple arrow). Behind him, Almada has Bravo and Chará to worry about and Juan David Mosquera coming over to cut him off (red arrow). Meanwhile, Wiley and Araújo continue their parallel runs (yellow arrows) and, with Mosquera’s movement to the right side, are about to find themselves in acres of space.
Almada does his best to get to the ball first, but Bravo wins the race (red arrow) and will be able to recover the ball safely barring any teammates getting in the way out of nowhere. They also have Chará and Zac McGraw coming in for support (purple arrows). With Mosquera out of the way, Wiley and Araújo now find themselves with open road ahead (yellow arrows). Not that it’s going to matter because surely Mosquera and Bravo won’t somehow fumble it and cost their team a goal… right?
Oh, would you look at that? Bravo and Mosquera fumbled that one harder than the Mets fumbled the NL East last season (big red question mark). Almada capitalizes from the chaos and snatches the ball away to continue barreling toward Portland’s goal (blue arrow). It’s a good thing Wiley and Araújo are still making their runs (yellow arrows), because they’re about to come in handy.
With Portland’s defenders panicking and disorganized trying to close down Almada, the Argentine calmly flicks the ball forward for Wiley (blue arrow) who now has a clear path to the goal (yellow arrow). Araújo continues his run to offer support (purple arrow), but Wiley won’t need it…
… he just keeps running toward Aljaz Ivacic’s goal…
… and calmly converts to put Atlanta on the board.
- One of the things that I talked about in a previous breakdown is how Atlanta could seriously benefit from taking advantage of quick counterattacks instead of just killing the ball and letting the opponent get numbers back. They did just that in this play and last week against Charlotte and both plays resulted in goals. This is a good habit to get into and I’m certain that with the pacey players this team has, they’ll be able to succeed at this quite often.
- That’s three goals and two assists for Wiley in the past two games. The kid’s in great form and has a promising future ahead of him. He’s clearly garnering connections with his teammates in the attack as they can count on him to be significantly involved.
- I know this is an attacking breakdown, but this play all starts thanks to Robinson heading the ball out and starting a counterattack. The 26-year-old was the team’s most important defender before his injury and he certainly hasn’t lost a step. Right now, he’s in the 73rd percentile for aerial duels won, 62nd percentile in tackles and 52nd percentile in blocks. His 90th percentile in progressive passes is elite and he’s one of the best one-on-one defenders on the continent. He’s going to be missed this week as 17-year-old Noah Cobb is charged with filling Robinson’s veeeeeery big shoes.
Atlanta United Goal - Giorgios Giakoumakis 58’
For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you know that I’ve recently started reading a book called “Soccer IQ” by former UGA and Ole Miss Assistant Coach Dan Blank. The very first chapter of the book is titled “The Holy Grail” and it’s all about the speed of play. To sum up the chapter in few words, “fast is better than slow.”
This play is a great example of why.
After successfully defending a corner kick, Atlanta finds itself on a breakaway. Now, given the opponent’s set piece that just happened, a lot of Portland’s numbers were forward. There are eight Timbers players in this frame plus another that took the corner kick outside the picture.
Almada carried the ball out, but is struggling to find options to progress the play. He can’t pass to Ibarra in the middle because the pass would be easily intercepted by Santiago Moreno (red x). He could try a driven pass to Giorgios Giakoumakis (dotted blue arrow), but he risks Chará stepping in before the ball reaches the Greek striker (solid red arrow).
The Argentine wonder-kid sees another option, though. One that we actually can’t see in this frame: Araújo wide open on the other side (about where that yellow arrow is pointing). Almada gives himself space and sends a perfect switch of play to his Brazilian teammate (solid blue arrow).
Araújo receives and has a few seconds to evaluate his options. Mostly everyone around him is marked or would immediately be under intense pressure, so he looks to the other side of the field and sees that Caleb Wiley has some space. The Brazilian takes a step away from his mark and plays another really good switch of play to the 18-year-old homegrown (blue arrow).
Now, I want you to notice how many players are far back enough to deal with the danger Atlanta is creating: only four. We counted nine players earlier that were running out of the box, but they can’t outrun Atlanta’s progressive passing.
One of the concepts “Soccer IQ” hammers home in the first chapter is that nothing on the field can move faster than a kicked ball. Not even the fastest person alive would be able to outrun a ball in motion. So a ball in motion is fast and - as we established earlier - fast is better than slow, therefore passing the ball forward is often much better than trying to dribble your way through defenders. Just look at how many defenders got left behind by the first pass and are still trying to make their way back (yellow arrows).
Oh, and keep an eye on Giakoumakis (circled in purple), he’s about to be really important.
Wiley carries the ball forward a bit, but then sees Giakoumakis making a run into the box (yellow arrow). If Wiley doesn’t make the cross and instead decides to dribble to the goal, he’d have to deal with the four Timbers players who are rushing back (circled in red). But, if he can just get a cross to Giakoumakis, there’s only one defender (plus the keeper) that the Greek would have to contend with. Wiley plays a final lobbed ball to the team’s newest designated player (blue arrow)…
… who gets onto it well…
… and buries it in the back of the net.
- Fast is good. Fast is better than slow. Passing is fast and dribbling/holding the ball is slow. We’ve talked before about the team increasing the pace of attacking transitions and here’s how you do it. It doesn’t even take that many passes. Heck, it took just three passes for Atlanta United to get across the field and score. The key is to keep the ball moving and trying to find the best passing option to continue the momentum. The team did that well in this play and the result was a very good goal.
- Yeah, that was a really good cross by Wiley. I did criticize his crossing in the Toronto game, but his passing has been much better the past two games as evidenced by two assists. Hopefully he can carry this form a while longer. Especially since a short-staffed Atlanta will be relying on him against Columbus on Saturday.
- Giakoumakis could’ve had at least four goals in this game had he not been offside. Now, there are two things that could cause him to be offside: either he’s making the runs too early or his teammates are delaying the pass too much. Either way, it’s only a matter of time and training with the team some more before they get this right and Giako can really add to his goal tally.
Atlanta United Goal - Luis Araújo 74’
The Five Stripes’ fourth goal started from the back with Gutman carrying the ball up toward the midfield. Unlike the last goal, all of Portland’s numbers are back, so Atlanta won’t be catching them by surprise as easily.
Gutman then plays a simple pass to Almada (blue arrow) who has tons of space and plenty of time to make up his mind (purple line). Meanwhile, Araújo is slowly advancing up the other flank (yellow arrow) to find some open space behind Portland’s lines.
Almada patiently evaluates his options. He knows that passing inside to Santiago Sosa or Amar Sejdic won’t be very effective as three of Portland’s players are surrounding them and could close them down quickly (yellow lines). He could pass to Derrick Etienne Jr (dotted blue arrow), but he has two Timbers players that can simply force him against the touch line and greatly limit Atlanta’s chances.
There is another option developing, though. Araújo (circled in yellow) is now advancing into an area with tons of space.
Araújo starts his run in behind Portland’s back line (yellow arrow). Notice how the bulk of Portland’s defenders are concentrated on the left flank (red line). They’re so worried about watching Etienne and Giakoumakis (dotted red arrows) that they don’t see the Brazilian winger about to get in a very dangerous position. You know who does see him? Almada. The Argentine plays an inch-perfect ball over the top to play Araújo in (blue arrow).
Araújo receives the ball with pressure on his right. That leaves just one direction for him to go: diagonally away from Rasmussen (blue arrow). With just one pass, Atlanta United has gotten behind Portland’s lines and has their players in desperate retreat (yellow arrows). Etienne, Lennon and Giakoumakis also start running toward the box to provide support (purple arrows), but Araújo won’t need it.
He dribbles into the box a little…
… and fires a really good left-footed shot across the goal to increase Atlanta’s lead to four.
- This isn’t the first time Almada has demonstrated his keen eye to pick out a pass as well as his pinpoint passing ability. It’s a large part of why he has four assists in four games this season. Sure, everyone’s going to be talking about that free kick golazo (it left me speechless when I saw it live), but these moments where he’s able to set up a teammate to score are very valuable as well.
- Araújo has now scored two goals in the last two games. That’s great, but the how he scored them is what’s most important: he exploited empty space and gave his teammate on the ball a passing option. In the previous match, he ran into the space on the right side while all of Charlotte’s defenders were concentrated on the left. This time, he did something more impressive in my opinion: he ran diagonally across the goal into space left empty by Portland’s advanced back line. If he can continue to make these runs (especially the ones that get him on his dominant left foot), he’s going to rack up many goals this season.
- Giakoumakis is here to score. Every team in the league is aware of the threat that he presents and knows that they have to mark him closely. In this play alone there were 2-3 players that could potentially close him down. When a player can drag defenders away from their teammates like he does, the team benefits greatly. We saw this with Almada against Charlotte as well. I’d be interested to see if something similar happens to Araújo on Saturday as he’ll be the only designated player available for that game.
With that, we wrap up another week of breaking down plays. Hopefully there’ll be plenty more goals to look at next week (but not too many because it was hard enough to choose which ones to write about this week). Until then, I’ll leave you with another goal that I don’t think you’ll need me to analyze.
THIAGO ALMADA IS A MAGICIAN pic.twitter.com/5j8KxUL6IO— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) March 19, 2023
As always, let me know your thoughts in the comments below!