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Three thoughts on Atlanta United’s 2-1 loss to MLS-leading FC Cincinnati

It wasn’t the result we hoped for, but given the opponent, there are some genuine bright spots.

MLS: FC Cincinatti at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United welcomed MLS’s eventual Supporter’s Shield champions to Mercedes-Benz Stadium Wednesday. Atlanta lost 2-1 thanks to two late Cincy goals in a span of six minutes. Here are my thoughts.

I’m not happy. But I’m not not happy.

Honestly, that wasn’t bad and I’m not upset like I have been watching Atlanta United at various times times throughout the year. Let’s remind ourselves that this is an Atlanta United team that has been mired in mediocrity (or worse) through the majority of this season. We all know what it feels like to leave a stadium not just disappointed in a loss, but feeling like you got scammed for having paid good money to be held captive in games where Atlanta is clearly outmatched and is not an entertaining watch.

This was sooooo not that. This was a game where Atlanta United got an early goal against far-and-away the most consistent team in MLS this year in FC Cincinnati, and held that lead for over an hour of the game. Ultimately, Cincinnati showed why it’s the runaway Supporters Shield leaders in never panicking and staying sharp on both ends of the field until the bitter end. But there are definite green shoots here for Atlanta. If this game was a barometer of the level at which Atlanta United can compete, honestly it showed that this team is at least capable of beating the best team in the league, even if it didn’t pan out that way Wednesday night. It’s nice to know your team at least has a chance to win any time it steps on the field.

Atlanta is settling into a new style of play that better suits the team defensively

Thanks to the new additions of Tristan Muyumba, Xande Silva and Saba Lobjanidze, Atlanta United is playing differently than it had in the past. The game model is the same and the team’s philosophy under Gonzalo Pineda remains, but the ramification of good technical players coming into the team is that they will play higher up the field with more confidence and an ability to better retain possession and play through tight spaces. That’s one reason we’ve seen the team be so much more dynamic in it’s past three games.

But the team is also on it’s best defensive run in these three games, having allowed just the two goals to Cincy last night in it’s past 270 minutes. I’d posit that one of the reasons is that both of the center backs, Miles Robinson and Luis Abram, as well as goalkeeper Brad Guzan are all in much more comfortable and preferable settings in which to exploit their talents. That being much higher up the field. For Robinson especially (but Abram as well), he is at his absolute best when he has lots of space behind him — something many center backs hate. But Robinson is so gifted athletically that that space allows him to use his speed, strength, and anticipation to either dominate his opponent or make up ground if needed. It allows both of the center backs to play very aggressively, which results in less second guessing. It allows them to play proactively and forces their opponents to play on the back foot to find a way around what can feel like a wall at times.

But for Guzan, this aggressive posture is important too. Guzan has always been at his very best when he’s able to roam from his goal line and also play on the front foot, even as a goalkeeper. And with fewer bodies packed in front of him, he can clearly see and anticipate where the ball is going. Like many of Atlanta’s players, he’s been at his best in these past three games, and may have made his best save since his return from an Achilles rupture in the second half that, at the time, kept Atlanta in the lead.

This team will get better down the stretch

Atlanta United looks miles beyond where it was a couple months ago as we’ve discussed, but it’s still far from being at its peak. Saba Lobjanidze is still just finding his footing with the team tactically. His skill has been evident so far, but due to the timing of his arrival with Atlanta’s fixture congestion, he still hasn’t had but one or two rigorous training sessions with the team. His teammates weren’t able to find him much in his 30 minutes of action despite finding himself in acres of space. Once he is fully integrated with his teammates, he will be another genuine goal threat and only make everyone else better.