Atlanta United has the joint-worst defensive record in MLS.
Weeks ago we discussed how Atlanta United would never be able to realistically consider themselves challengers for trophies until they stopped leaking such poor goals. After Saturday’s 4-0 loss to New York Red Bulls, Atlanta has now conceded the most in MLS, allowing 35 goals in 20 games played — a hideous mark.
The truth is, you don’t give up goals at this rate unless you have a myriad of ills plaguing the team in different ways. So I’m modifying my normal postgame “Thoughts” column to offer some thoughts on why we’ve found ourselves in the current situation.
Players are ultimately responsible for what happens to the ball
Many people want to hold anybody but the players accountable for things that go wrong (and rightly credit them when they go well), but they are the ones in the arena — they are the ones who impact the game. Saturday, it was all too obvious that they were not the better set of players. Just look at the first two goals conceded: the first, a total switch off where players decided to let Red Bulls walk the ball into scoring range (Daniel Edelman shrugs his shoulders after scoring as if to say “how was it that easy?”). The other is a straight-up erratic pass from Juanjo Purata that leads directly to a wave of Red Bulls running right back at him.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Caleb Wiley speaking absolute truth after the game, the quotes which come from the AJC’s Southern Fried Soccer Podcast by reporter Doug Roberson.
“I just don’t think we came in with the right mentality. You could see it from the very start. Yes, we created some chances. We were a threat in moments of the game. But... we didn’t want it. They’re a team that you have to come out on the front foot and ready to go to war, and I just don’t think that we were owning that tonight.
“It shouldn’t be surprising because we know what they’re capable of doing. We’ve played them in the past — it’s Red Bulls soccer. They’re very aggressive, they’re a second-ball team. We should’ve done better tonight.”
Gonzalo Pineda has to put the players at his disposal in a better position to succeed
While the players have ultimate influence once the game begins, any team’s manager’s job in the week or days ahed is to evaluate his roster, determine which players are most likely to make a positive impact, and configure those players in a manner which allows those positives to flourish and for potential negative actions to be diminished. It’s a risk-reward judgement — no game model can incorporate only potential upside and zero risk.
Frustratingly, Pineda decided to do something that has plagued Atlanta United against New York Red Bulls since the dawn of time. He asked his team to play through Red Bulls’ press (again). Then, Juanjo Purata happens. The reason why Red Bulls historically beat teams who try to do this (typically the good teams — or at least the high-scoring teams like Atlanta United) is because they’re system is designed to exploit it. And when teams don’t try to do this — teams that play long ball and cede possession — they actually befuddle Red Bulls.
“So what you’re saying, Joe, is that you want Atlanta to degrade its standards and philosophy?”
Against Red Bulls in particular... yeah, I kinda do. At least with the roster as it was constructed for the game — a team that was without Miles Robinson (its best ball-playing defender) and a shaky-with-his-feet Brad Guzan in goal. Yes, I think the game model needs to be vastly different against Red Bulls compared to how the team has approached this fixture for years (under various managers).
There is hope
As frustrated as we al might be with this calamitous performance, don’t be so down. This Red Bulls problem Atlanta United has is a very specific one, and the team has shown an ability to win things in the past despite this nagging issue. So there’s that.
But more importantly, there’s a transfer window coming up. That means Atlanta United’s front office has an opportunity to reinforce with a Designated Player (they only have two at the moment) and potentially some other signings that will bring in players with attributes where the team is currently lacking.
Remember, coming into this season, this team went from having a glaring hole at the center forward position to having one of the best ones in the league. That’s the kind of impact one signing can have, and Atlanta can add one that could be on this roster just weeks from now. For better or for worse, what this team is at the moment is not hugely relevant to how we’ll be feeling about its prospects when playoff time rolls around later in the fall. But Saturday showed there’s a lot of work to do.