Not every point is made the same
Last week in this column, I gushed about Atlanta United’s performance in a well-won road point against NYCFC. It was a great result built on an even more promising performance.
I have no idea how people feel about this 2-2 draw a week later in Toronto, but I remain more on the positive side. In truth, it wasn’t the team’s best performance of the season — in fact it might rank closer to the bottom than the top in that respect. But considering it was a game played without Thiago Almada and with Giorgos Giakoumakis forced off early due to a hamstring injury, the team put in a shift that kept them competitive and obviously with a great chance to win.
Atlanta United still has kinks to work out. They have to continue to improve in these little aspects of the game that champions excel at — holding on to leads under pressure in the final moment being one of them. But while there’s still a ways to go, that shouldn’t blind us for seeing the steps this team has made from previous seasons, and it’s a trajectory that could potentially lead to them indeed becoming championship material.
Thiago Almada’s importance is evident in absentia (again)
It should come as no surprise that Atlanta United’s two lowest expected goal (xG) totals have come in the two games where Thiago Almada was unavailable to play. Thankfully, he was held out Saturday for reportedly precautionary reasons and he’s likely to return soon. But what’s more stark than the xG difference Atlanta had Sunday versus past games was the way in which they played without Almada, which was clearly less “protagonistic” (to borrow a term) than they were when these two teams played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on March 4. In that game, Atlanta had 66 percent possession and a whopping 239 touches in the attacking third. Saturday, the team lost the possession battle at just 47 percent and had 98 touches in the attacking third. That kind of drop-off can partially be explained by playing away from home, but it’s more directly attributable to the team not having it’s most technical and creative player on the field.
Now, the glass-half-full view of this — one I subscribe to — is it’s a credit to the team for earning an acceptable result despite Almada’s absence. But it’s just another warnning sign that if he were to ever miss a significant period of time or important games against top teams, Atlanta United doesn’t have much of a Plan B.
It’s nice to have players who can produce on crosses into the box
Atlanta United has often been victim of a result in which the team plays the more attractive and ambitious soccer, yet loses out on points because the other team has a brutish and clinical striker that grabs a goal off of a seemingly innocuous cross and the rest is history. Well, Saturday was a pleasant turn of those tables, and a proof of concept for adding a Designated Player like Giorgos Giakoumakis. He’s a physical player that can be a poacher in a crowded box, and it’s that exact quality that put Atlanta United on the front foot Saturday thanks to his fourth minute goal from a corner kick. It was a beautifully finessed header, by the way, and we shouldn’t undersell the kind fo quality required to score from such a position. But being honest, the goals that stick in the memory bank are the excellent team goals, the thunderbastards from long range, etc. Not the headed goals from corners. But they all count the same.
Has Machop Chol gone from overrated to underrated?
Okay, he was probably never actually “overrated,” but hear me out. As far as Homegrown players go, he kinda burst onto the scene under then-manager Gabriel Heinze. He featured heavily that initial preseason in 2021, made an early season cameo as a sub, and then started four straight games for Atlanta United under Heinze and interim Rob Valentino mid-season. Fans were at least aware of who he was quite early on in his professional career, which can’t be said for everyone in his situation.
In general, my perspective on HG players — no matter the hype — is “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Personally, I was not so impressed with Chop. I saw a straight line runner who shied away from the ball and looked like he lacked confidence and didn’t deliver anything in the final third. Some of that may have been true at the time, but those initial judgements left me too biased on his potential.
Twenty months later, his performances so far this season have showed why the coaches who’ve gotten the closest looks at him day-to-day have seemed to be more bullish on Chop than just about anyone. He is showing that he has a soft touch, nimble footwork despite his gangly frame, and he scored a hugely important goal with a header that mirrored Yako’s mentioned above. If this is the type of performance Chop can deliver consistently — able to run with the ball and take on defenders, win fouls, be a threat in the box and defend set pieces — then Atlanta has a very useful player that should continue to appear as a sub and could deputize if there are injuries at certain positions.
It’s worth remembering that Chop was Pineda’s primary striker this preseason before the signings of Yako and Miguel Berry. It’s very possible that Chol could outplay Berry for the important backup striker role. But the added bonus is that he has experience and is versatile enough to play in any of the three forward roles, which is why we are bound to see a lot more of him going forward.