A New Home
Atlanta United opened up their permanent home of Mercedes Benz Stadium on Sep. 10 battling to get into the MLS Cup Playoffs. Just three weeks and seven home matches later, they had clinched a postseason birth and now control their destiny for a first round home playoff match.
To be fair, the Five Stripes’ rapid ascent up the table couldn’t be seen as much of a surprise. After all, Atlanta had already established themselves as a dominant home side, amassing a 6-2-1 record at Bobby Dodd Stadium. And the complications with the opening of the Benz created a rather unique fixture list that saw the Five Stripes playing eight of their final ten matches at their new home.
We can all agree that Atlanta have played by far there best soccer at home this season. But while the results so far at MBS speak volumes, have the performances truly improved over Bobby Dodd’s? Are we seeing a genuine improvement in play? Or would United have spent the majority of their season well above the red line had their home and away matches been more evenly distributed? It’s hard to answer all of these questions with certainty. But what we do know is that AU’s home form in September was an impressive stretch of dominance, where the Five Stripes markedly improved their overall home performance from BDS, establishing one of the league’s top home pitch advantages, and becoming a better team in the process.
The Attack: More efficient, more versatile
via MLS Live
A short corner starts the play with a quick and easy pass, then comes a simple cross, an important flick, and then the finish from Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. Not exactly the type of goal we had become accustomed to this season, as United’s short corner execution was indisputably not up to snuff at BDS. But it only took 14 minutes at MBS to see a goal we hadn’t often seen at Bobby Dodd. In all, the Five Stripes have scored three times already from short corners over their first seven matches at their new digs, compared to just one in nine at Bobby Dodd.
As far as overall crossing goes, United have also picked up the pace in an area previously considered to be an attacking vulnerability. Opponents had previously had some success in Atlanta by playing defensive and packing the center of the pitch, conceding spaces in the wide areas and allowing crosses into a packed box. But AU have picked up the pace in this area, scoring six goals from crosses and corners since that first home match against Dallas. At Bobby Dodd? Just four goals, despite playing two more games there.
What’s perhaps most interesting is that while AU have been able to connect from wide positions more efficiently, they’ve crossed the ball significantly less than they were at Bobby Dodd, with United’s 17 per game mark at Bobby Dodd dropping to 12.7 at MBS (this number would be even lower if not for the 32 crosses attempted in a 3-3 draw against Orlando).
The drop in crosses represents an even stronger Atlanta United in possession, and a purer form of Tata Martino’s passing based system (only Sporting KC cross less per game). Instead, United are holding onto the ball more effectively, and when they are finding the likes of Asad, Villalba, McCann and Walkes in dangerous wide areas, the ensuing crosses seem to be of the more dangerous variety. We see a good example below against New England. Granted Walkes’ goal comes after the Revs went down to 9-men, but NE are all behind the ball here, and their defensive shape here is not dissimilar to what we’ve seen from opponents. Watch how United stay patient with the ball in wide areas, patiently switching the field of play, before finding Greg Garza in space to pick out a cross to Anton Walkes.
The shift in the crossing numbers could be the case for several reasons. Perhaps this is where the added width at MBS has made the largest difference, giving United players that bit of extra space to pass the ball side-to-side and stretch a packed defense before the cross comes in. Another is that Josef Martinez is wreaking havoc up front every match after struggling with injuries in the first half of the season, or that wingers Tito Villalba has blossomed over the past two months, playing the best soccer of his career. The overall cause is probably a mix of all these components, and more. And either way, Martino will be happy to see his side executing his desired attacking tactics to a “T.”
Certainly, visiting Atlanta just got harder for their opponents, s United’s ability to score more efficiently from aerial balls gives their fearsome attack an added weapon.
The Defense: More consistent, more stingy
While we’ve mainly seen an improved attack, there has all been a transformation at MBS on the defensive side. To be fair, this was essentially happening before the first match at MBS, as yours truly discussed here last month. In September and now October, the team gained seven clean sheets in nine matches (this includes the 0-0 draws at New England and NYRB).
The newfound defensive consistency shows when you compare the numbers from BDS to MBS. Firstly, there’s the obvious - United are giving up under one goal per game at MBS, a drop off from their previous home. But United haven’t simply been lucky, or getting world-beating performances from Brad Guzan (who has been solid, when called on). United are limiting opposition opportunities altogether. We’ve seen a drop off in shots conceded from 9.7 to 8.4. And more impressively, opposition shots on target have been sliced nearly in half (3.7 to 2.4 per game). This further limiting of opportunities is surely a good omen heading into the postseason, where better teams will naturally finish at higher rates. (thanks to Tiotalfootball for the stats)
As was the case with the offense, the defense has begun to fire on all cylinders. In short, a unit once seen as AUFC’s weakness, are now performing at a high rate like never before this season.
What Does it Mean?
With the postseason beckoning, the Five Stripes will be pleased with their recent form, as they played their best soccer all season during last month’s opening run in the Benz. And most importantly, AU have looked an overall more efficient side from back to front home or away (especially on the defensive side).
In all, the better form from BDS to MBS likely is a microcosm of the overall improvements that United have made throughout the season. The defense has added a solidity that wasn’t there early on. And the attack has shown an ability to score in increasingly varied ways since the team opened the Benz.
Only time will tell what the rest of the season, and playoffs, will bring for Atlanta United fans. But one thing we do know is that opponents will dread coming to Mercedes Benz Stadium, where the Five Stripes have managed to improve on their already-fine home form in virtually every possible area.