Atlanta United is a contender if they don’t concede cheap goals
If it seems like this season has been a roller coaster for Atlanta United, it’s because that’s exactly what it’s been. The team got off to an unprecedented start in franchise history with big wins including on the road. But over time, that joy faded as the team began to concede many sloppy goals. The end result is a team that’s hung steady around mid-table in the Eastern Conference that, as of recently, led the league in goals scored and goals conceded (turns out lots of goals isn’t always fun).
The last two games have proven that Atlanta can still contend with some of the top teams in the league if they get their act together defensively. Gonzalo Pineda’s tactical shift to a 3-4-3 shape is certainly benefitting the team as it’s currently constructed. The road win against Montreal Saturday —- just the team’s second road win of the season — was a testament to the newfound solidity the team seems to have.
Is it sustainable? The jury is still out, in my opinion. I say that not to take away anything from the team’s recent performances. But Philadelphia and Montreal only generated two total shots that have tested Brad Guzan over the last 180 minutes. Given that Guzan has been liable for some of the defensive frailties that plagued the team earlier this season, let’s restrain ourselves from getting too excited right now. But these are obviously very encouraging signs.
After a chaotic opening to the transfer window, the team responded
The storylines last week were obviously all about the sudden and unexpected departures of Atlanta’s 5th- and 6th-most used players (by minutes) this season in the likes of Andrew Gutman and Franco Ibarra. I, for one, wondered if there would be lingering effects resulting from these moves that could harm the team’s chances specifically this past weekend. BUt it’s a huge credit to the players, Pineda and his staff that there wasn’t an ounce of any ill effects on display. The team was organized, committed, and strong throughout.
Special credit goes to Santiago Sosa, who has been thrust into a more pivotal role in the team after Ibarra’s absence. Ibarra basically outplayed Sosa to stake a claim to the team’s most-defensive holding midfield role this season, but Sosa stepped up and had one of his best games of the season Saturday night. He was strong in the tackle and moved the ball quickly and variably. It’s a huge platform for him to build off of. The key will be to maintain health so that he can continue to grow his confidence on the field.
Thiago Almada might just be the world’s best free kick taker going right now
This seems like a bold claim (it is, I guess) and I’m going to be honest, I don’t have specific free kick stats to back this up... but you agree, right? I mean, even if he’s not scoring directly from the kicks, good things tend to happen for Atlanta when he’s lining up a shot from inside 30 yards. Last week’s was a stunner Almada scored off a rebound on an admittedly poor shot into the wall. But Saturday he should’ve gotten an assist for Brooks Lennon’s goal, which came as a tap-in after Almada drilled the woodwork as he so often does.
Almada has three free kick goals this year on 15 attempts. For some context, MLS’s record holder for such goals is Sebastian Giovinco, who scored 13 in his three-year MLS career. Lionel Messi, who enters the league later this month, has long been considered one of the best in the world at free kicks, and his most successful season ever in doing so was scoring six free kick goals in 2018/19 in La Liga. David Beckham scored on seven free kicks in his five years in MLS.
Not looking at free kicks directly, but the [deep breath] non-penalty goals MINUS non-penalty expected goals stat (basically, how many unlikely goals you score) places Almada sixth in MLS. Among the leaders in npxG-npG, only Pablo Ruiz (10th) and Lucas Zelaryan (23rd) have avg shot distances as long or longer than Almada’s. Read that however you will.