Hello darkness, my old friend. Atlanta United is sitting on one win in their past seven matches, and it feels like all the momentum from the beginning of the season has slammed headfirst into a brick wall...one not named Brad Guzan.
Intensity and leadership. Those were two themes that stood out following Atlanta United’s 3-1 loss at home to Charlotte FC Saturday night in what may have been one of the more anemic performances at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the history of the club. To anyone paying even slight attention to the team over the past few weeks, there is a clear disconnect between what the team wants to do vs actually performing for 90 whole minutes. It didn’t play out well for Atlanta during rivalry week.
While Gonzalo Pineda spoke after the match about the team’s training sessions not translating to the pitch, Giorgos Giakoumakis pointed out the leadership void on the field since Brad Guzan went down.
It’s an interesting nugget, but it’s not a secret. This team has prime talent in certain aspects of the field, but when one player has to drop from the pitch for any variety of reasons, no one is effectively stepping up to fill that role. No true on-field leader has risen since Guzan tore his MCL, barring maybe Giakoumakis himself, but he’s been in and out due to his hamstring. No backup striker has scored when Giakoumakis is hurt. No central defensive midfielder has been as effective as Franco Ibarra. These are issues that may get solved in the summer transfer window, but ultimately this team should still be winning the matches they’ve recently dropped, and it’s a lack of intensity and leadership that’s killing them.
Sure, the first 15 minutes of this match were strong; three good chances went unrewarded, though, and then Charlotte found their opening goal off an unmarked former Five Stripe, Justin Meram, jogging to the far post to simply redirect a cross into the back of the net. The defensive lapse was alarming enough, considering how Atlanta United had almost every variable going in their favor in this match, but the way the team responded after going down 1-0 was worse.
Charlotte had multiple injuries, their leading goal scorer out to yellow card accumulation, and short rest due to the Open Cup on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Atlanta United had most of the same starting 11 they beat Charlotte 3-0 with earlier this season, but the home field advantage just didn’t seem to exist Saturday night.
Gonzalo Pineda arrived in the press room post-match - after a longer than normal locker room conversation - and spoke about the aforementioned lack of intensity from his squad in the past few matches, noting that the other team “just wanted it more.” It’s a worrying trend going back to the Chicago match a couple of weeks ago; Atlanta scraped that win after what was essentially a late-game lucky moment where a cross deflected off Juanjo Purata’s thigh. The football wasn’t great in that game, though, and it’s unfortunately gone downhill since.
Meanwhile, striker Giorgos Giakoumakis pointed to the team’s confidence and the understanding of each other on the pitch as notable issues that need to be fixed. As a bit of sunshine, though, he did note that periods like the current Atlanta United skid have a way of making champion teams, if they play their cards right and come out on the other side stronger. Take a look below at everything he and Pineda said after the match as they quickly prepare to take the pitch again on Wednesday.
Atlanta United Head Coach Gonzalo Pineda:
On his thoughts about the attacking production and preparing for Wednesday’s match:
“There are a couple things to fix before we can focus on the attack. I think we started the game pretty well, creating three chances, two of which were very clear, before they made it 1-0, and we couldn’t score, but I feel like we are not at the level of intensity that we need to have, both on and off the ball. So more than the attack, because I feel that we created some decent chances, especially in the first half, but the levels of intensity are not there, so we need to fix that first and then we can correct some other stuff.”
On how to go about correcting the levels of intensity:
“Training sessions. Working hard. Now, we have to recover and [the team] has to see what we need to do better. We have already talked, and I expect better next time.”
On if the lack of intensity is surprising:
“It is hard to say. It surprises me because normally we train at a high, high level of intensity. Our training sessions are not the issue, it is while we are there, it feels like the opponent wants it more than us, especially tonight. [Charlotte FC] was hurt a lot by the 3-0 loss in their house, and now they come here with the mentality of maybe not playing very offensive in the first half, but they were defending at their very best, winning the duels, and if they need to foul Thiago [Almada] twenty times, then they did that. They did everything they needed to do to win. Last game against [Inter Miami], it felt a little bit of the same, they were not attacking constantly, but they were more in the middle-block and defending, and they did that very well. It feels like we haven’t come back to the beginning of the season, where I felt the full determination and the commitment. It isn’t like we are far away from that, not that far, but it feels like the opponent wants it a little bit more, in the last two games especially. So, we need to come back to that and [the team] needs to realize that every opponent at home is very valuable and we need to win at home every time, but we need to start with the mentality.”
On if he has the solutions to fix the current four-game skid:
“Yes, I have a great squad. I have no questions about my team, no doubts, it is more about them understanding that we all need to be better, and I have the tools to make that happen. I have a very good team, and we were playing very good on the ball before the first goal [from Charlotte], but that lack of intensity in key moments of the game put us in tough positions. [Charlotte’s] first goal came from only one shot on goal in the first half and it is a goal, and now we are losing 1-0 in a game that I felt we were dominating pretty much the whole half. Then, starting in the second half, you have a set play from very deep that they get in behind us, but that lack of attention and lack of intensity leads to the penalty and red card, and now it is a very different game. So, we need that level of intensity of high demand in every action, every reset, every throw-in, every set play, we need to be fully committed, and that is what we need to do.”
On why he thinks the intensity has dropped recently:
“I feel like momentum, momentum matters, and in that moment, I feel like preseason was pretty good, we were, honestly, in a very good standard in terms of that level of intensity, and again, that international window kind of killed that little momentum that we had. After that [break], I don’t think we have played at the same caliber. The New York Red Bulls game was probably one that I think we played at the same intensity, but after that, no, I haven’t felt it. Again, we have it, because otherwise we wouldn’t have shown it at the beginning of the season, and again, we are not that far, because the margins in MLS are very, very small, so it is not like it is very easy to win in this league, as you see constantly, with many, many results that seem to be not likely, and yet it happens. We just need to just find that extra boost of intensity to get the results that we need. At times it can be pretty, and sometimes it might not be the best football, but we need to always have full commitment, and that it is what we need.”
Atlanta United forward Giorgos Giakoumakis:
On if the team’s confidence drops when not scoring early
“Yeah, it’s obvious. I don’t think we were waiting for the first goal or the red card to lose our confidence. We played without confidence the last games because of the results. We are having a tough period right now, but these periods I think create champions. If you can come out stronger from this situation that means we are strong. We need to show now to ourselves first of all and our fans that we are really strong and get over this period and come back to the glory days and victories.”
On how he can help the team find the intensity to turn around these results
“Now that I’m back and healthy, you can’t put your intensity straight into the game. You have to do it in training. I don’t think we have a lack of intensity in training, but it’s different when you play a game versus just train with your teammates. I think we can work even harder in training. We can’t accept this whole situation. If you don’t accept this situation and get upset about it, we have to start thinking that we need to change a few things. First of all, mentally we have to be stronger. We have to be tougher. We have to overcome different situations like the one we have right now. But I think we will work even harder in the training. We will talk between each other, and this is something that we need in this moment. We need to communicate a bit more. We need to realize how my teammate next to me is thinking, what is he expecting from me. What am I expecting from him. We need to understand that. Right now sometimes we don’t play with our teammates. This is something we need to change right away and I think there is a good chance on Wednesday to get a victory and come back with a positive result and give some happiness to our fans. We said that that if we keep losing, keep dropping points then the fans will disappear, and they will be right. We bring the fans to the stadium, and we send them away with our performances. I hope that we will give them some joy to come and watch us.”
On if it’s just a mentality issue right now
“No, it’s our mentality. We have to grow up and change our complete mentality. To basically create this champion mentality that we don’t have in the most possible way. Embracing that mentality, creating that mentality now the whole game will change for us.”
On if the team understands the tactics it’s supposed to execute
“We go game by game. Every game for us is different. Every opponent has different structures so we have to adapt to create our attacks and play style from that moment. So I cannot talk to you guys about something specific because it’s game by game.”
On the team’s mentality and if he feels there was some complacency
“I think these words get connected. If you have the wrong mentality then you have lack of intensity and lack of expectations from yourself and when you don’t have expectations for yourself then your intensity is not that big. Everything is connected and I agree.”
You kind of have to have an underdog mentality?
“Every player is different and every player has different characteristics so we have to think ‘I’m not this guy, I’m not the No. 10, I’m not the striker, as a striker what can I do? I can score, I can run as much as possible.’ Everyone can put this characteristic into his position, the team first of all, and then ourselves, so we have to kill ourselves on the field. And this is something that we’re missing right now and it’s also because we have a lack of confidence. This is something that affects you a lot when you try to impose your intensity into the game and you cannot because you don’t feel that good, that happy, that important, that strong and everything is a circle and it goes on.”