Last Thursday night surely took Atlanta United fans by surprise, as it frankly should have, it was an embarrassment for the MLS Cup Champions. Yet for some, the 3-1 loss led to a complete overreaction that I felt was unwarranted. Naturally the criticism exploded all over the timeline from both national pundits and the Five Stripe faithful alike. They had just seen MLS’ best shot at ending the league’s CONCACAF Champions League heartbreak fall at the first hurdle.
Disappointment is an understatement, especially when you have the most talented roster in MLS and replace Miguel Almiron with the South American Player of the Year, stuff that just doesn’t happen in MLS. That’s why things with Atlanta United are, were, supposed to be different. That is why last week’s social media meltdown was warranted…to an extent. Maybe the expectations were too high going into a matchup that saw a team still kind of in preseason mode and all the things that come with it, playing a side that while in rough shape domestically, was still playing their 10th game of the regular season and match fit physically. Those watching saw a team that was ready to play vs one who looked like they forgot there was a game.
It was a rough watch but I still felt, given the external factors, the social media reaction was a bit much. Everything from the playing surface, to the exposure to new environment and competition that is CCL, to lack of match fitness and cohesion within the Frank de Boer’s new system. It is all a lot to prepare for in just under a month which is why my message to ATLSportsHQ’s Atlanta United followers was pretty much to relax…
Hell yeah Atlanta United can turn this thing around. The team is considered the most talented in MLS history for a reason. The attacking repertoire alone is intimidating for any visiting side. Sure, it sucks that Monster JAM is occupying MBS for this week(of all the weeks) but dirt is hard to transport/remove and these contractually obligated things are part of the reason Uncle Arthur has the money to spend on buying players like Pity Martinez and that PHAT new Josef contract. So get over the fact we don’t get to use our homefield advantage like Herediano did.
but how do the Five Stripes go about climbing out of the 3-1 hole they dug themselves into?
First, here are the numbers, straight forward…
…not very pretty huh. That’s how deep the hole is.
Let us discuss.
Find the Cohesion
The performance last week was disjointed, unorganized and the players just looked lost. When you are lost in the system de Boer implements, massive gaps like the ones displayed in Costa Rica happen. The team has been tasked with transitioning from a familiar man-marking system to a predominantly zonal-marking system. Zonal-marking has its benefits but when you aren’t yet comfortable within it, the indecision in real time becomes obvious and costly, things like 4 on 0 breakaways occur and the ball ends up in the back of your own goal. The backline looked out of sorts and I’m not sure it helped that Parky was kind of left out to dry, isolated at right centerback in a back 3. Miles Robinson was arguably Atlanta’s best player last week in that central role and while I have confidence he has a future in that spot–as sort of a sweeper to an extent– it’s not the proper time to have him there, especially when that is a position that highlights a defender’s ability to read the game and his surroundings. That ability is by far Michael Parkhurst’s biggest asset at this point in his career but I’m also not sure Parkhurst can physically play anywhere else in that back 3 than centrally. It isolates him in spots that display his weaknesses, as shown on Thursday. So I would propose that FdB should switch Parky and Robinson until they have time to make further judgments regarding that setup permanently. Remember that Atlanta has to put their best foot forward to overcome this 3-1 deficit, there is a lot resting on this second leg here. Cohesion is something that forms through practice and perfected over time yet Atlanta United doesn’t really have that kind of time. I doubt this ever happens but I would not be opposed to allowing the players to play a system they are comfortable with until they properly implement FdB’s system. Let them play a 3-5-2 or a 4-2-3-1, something that Atlanta is comfortable and proficient playing in until they are out of this predicament. This team is built perfectly to at least try a makeshift 4-2-3-1 and the players certainly remember how Tata’s system worked, not a permanent solution, just something to get them through Thursday and stay alive in the competition, so they can familiarize themselves with FdB’s sytem. Yet like I said I doubt that happens because managers simply do not work like that, you won’t see it happen but if it does, you heard it here first. Regardless, Atlanta needs to show up and show out on Thursday if they want to keep their 2019 CCL hopes alive, that part is obvious. Captain Michael Parkhurst said the team had a good week of practice which is promising to hear but quotes don’t reverse 3-1 deficits.
Return to Old Ways
Atlanta United’s initial identity as a team and a key factor whenever mentioning the Five Stripes at home has always been a team that starts fast and puts games to bed before the other team can blinks. Even as they shy’d away from it last season and in the playoffs, went to a more defensive-minded approach that allowed its attacking talent to get into space on the counter and punish teams who made mistakes in the midfield or over-commitment. The approach was just an approach, the identity to the general public was still the “High-flying Atlanta United” that puts on a show and can put the game away before the visitors are even off the bus. The players and ability is still there to come out flying at breakneck pace. They were even given a taste of their own medicine last week when Herediano came out like screamin’ banshees and were 2-0 up before Atlanta realized they were playing. One of the keys for Atlanta is to come out looking dangerous, put Herdeiano on their back foot and make them feel pressure. The classic matchup between an underdog with something to lose against a heavy favorite looking to reverse a previous scoreline usually turns into a attack vs defense exercise and more often than not when the favorite scores, the underdogs will roll over and succumb to the pressure. Even history shows in this competition, first leg deficits can be reversed at flip of a hat and looks comfortable a the end of the day for the team who starts out in a deficit. The Five Stripes have to play this game the opposite of how they did last Thursday, everything went wrong and it’s one of the worst performances I have ever seen from Atlanta United but the talent is there for a turn around. Yet having the ability is one thing, putting it to proper use is another.
Atlanta United desperately needs to have a fast start to get things going in the right direction and set the tone for their season. This club has not lost consecutive games since its inaugural season but it is once again in danger of allowing it to happen disastrously at the start of a new era. If they fail to turn it around, so be it, get to work on defending your MLS Cup. The problem is that also starts this Sunday against DC United, a team that has had our number despite even when they were bad. Now they are good and looking to prove a point. That rough first leg cost Atlanta an opportunity to sort of relax in the home leg and prepare for the MLS Opener. Instead, they have the chance to turn around a 3-1 deficit in a new competition for the club and that could be a genius coming of age moment or a massive letdown. Should Atlanta fail to advance in CCL AND be forced to play a vulnerable, rotated squad in their MLS opener, things could get ugly fast in just 3 games under Frank de Boer given his last few stops as manager.
Not a good look.
Yet I have faith Atlanta can get the job done. This team has too much talent to be as bad as they were last week on a regular basis. This new-look Atlanta United just needs time to gel and maybe they needed that wake-up call as they have the past two seasons. But if Atlanta United truly wants to be the club that sets every new benchmark for MLS clubs, it has to be dominant in CCL. That starts on Thursday night. It is still a home match in front of the home crowd, in a place where the players have played before and won convincingly. Fifth-Third Bank Stadium should still provide a hostile environment for the visitors. The stands are close to the field and will provide a similar atmosphere to Bobby Dodd, allowing the players to feel the passion and emotion of the fans, something that has proven to give the players a massive lift in the past. An early goal would go a long way in shifting momentum to the home side early on and helping Atlanta reverse the deficit and advance to the next leg of the competition. After all it is CONCACAF Champions League, the ultimate display of shenanigans, anything can and will happen.
How to Watch
Where: Fifth Third Bank Stadium, Kennesaw, GA
How: Yahoo Sports (ENG), Univision Deportes(ESP)
When: 8PM EST