After a promising first half, Atlanta United lit a match and set fire to their MLS Cup playoff hopes at Yankee Stadium on Sunday.
Two quick and really bizarre NYCFC playoff goals from Taty Castellanos and Alexander Callens revealed the good work put in by the Five Stripes during the initial 45 minutes.
But given the truly chaotic nature of their 2021 season, you did not expect Atlanta United to go down quietly, did you? Vapor caps or a punctured tire would not kill them. If they were going down in New York, they put their foot on the floor and crashed, as hard as possible.
There have been countless positive effects since Gonzalo Pineda (and Rob Valentino) took charge, and the fact that Atlanta even did the off-season is a miracle and proof of their good work, given that they had only won two of their 13 games and was seven points below the playoffs when Gabriel Heinze lost his job.
But Sunday’s match, and many before it, gave reason to think about where this team is going next, and where it needs to be improved to once again become a real MLS Cup challenger.
Shall we go into the weeds?
Atlanta United is too dependent on moments of individual brilliance. / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Despite all their possession and smart play by the press – in the first half, especially – Atlanta United ended Sunday’s match with just 0.3 xG from four shots on goal. Only three of their nine total shot attempts came inside the box and two of them were from midfielder Alan Franco.
This was largely due to a complete breakdown between the top four by Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, Marcelino Moreno and Luiz Araujo.
Despite all their significant talent, this quartet has not connected near as well as supporters had hoped. On Sunday, Martinez and Araujo exchanged just five passes, Araujo and Barco seven, Martinez and Moreno 10, and Araujo and Moreno six. Unless one of the four goes for a hello mary, things just seem to break down.
“I believe in the paper when you look at our team, we have fantastic players in terms of ability, the individual brilliance that guys can create in an instant literally out of nowhere can create something amazing for us,” team captain and goalkeeper Brad Guzan noted after the match .
That said, we need to be able to do it more collectively and more consistently. I think in terms of understanding that it may not be Marcelino (Moreno) who needs to create a moment of brilliance or (Ezequiel) Barco a moment of brilliance or Josef (Martinez). ) who show up late in a match and find something for us. It has to be more of an attacking edge consistently. “
This is not a new problem. Atlanta United have scored more than two goals in a single game on just five occasions throughout the season, and three of them came back-to-back in mid-September.
Ezequiel Barco is likely to leave this off-season. Whether that makes the picture clearer for Pineda remains to be seen, but it will surely force some kind of change. Maybe adding a little more progression and balance to the midfield in Barco’s absence can help bring the line into play and maintain the pressure in the opposition’s last third.
Anyway, we like to think of ball skills as “talent” while coordination and teaming come from the manager, but the ability to know where to move without the ball to support your teammates and to imagine where they can move when you having the ball to find them is talent.
– Tiotal Football (@TiotalFootball) November 21, 2021
Martinez was far too isolated against the NYCFC. / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
We will not talk about Atlanta United needing a back-up for Josef Martinez in a larger context or whether Venezuela’s national team players will be injured. It has already been done so many times.
But what we will do is analyze it in the context of a big game situation.
Against the NYCFC on Sunday, Martinez touched the ball only 22 times, least of all outfielders. It’s absolutely horrible for your biggest attack threat and one of the deadliest strikers in league history. Even with the limited service, Martinez forced a good save from Sean Johnson with only half a look at the goal per hour.
The narrow field at Yankee Stadium magnified an existing problem with this team; Martinez all too often looks alone on an island.
Part of that can be attributed to the later point about Five Stripes’ lack of cohesion in the attack. But on Sunday, with width almost impossible, Martinez needed someone close to him to get in touch with. Someone to play fast entryck passes with and hang out with to disrupt the NYCFC’s backline. In short, it called for a second striker to come close to the Venezuelan, rather than replace him entirely.
Cubo Torres is not that guy, and Jackson Conway does not seem to have won the trust of any manager who has come through the club recently. Maybe some value can be picked up on the MLS free agency market? Such as Max Urruti, Fafa Picault and Teal Bunbury may be available, to name a few. In a league with the complicated rules of the game for MLS, this is an area where alternatives can be found to a fraction of the usual budget expense.
Guzan is one of a small number of players on the playlist with extensive MLS experience. / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
After Sunday’s match, Pineda often talked about how happy he is with Atlanta United’s mentality. In the sense of their togetherness, it has been quite right since he and Valentino took over.
But in the context of being able to watch a match or get through adversity, this team still leaves a lot to be desired. Too many times, Five Stripes have collapsed late in the game or hit the canvas after a quick one-two.
Maybe this is due to a basic lack of experience. After all, Atlanta United has the third lowest average age (24.4) in MLS this season according to Transfermarkt. They are one of only two teams in the bottom five that even make it to the playoffs with the New York Red Bulls – none of them went further than round one.
After signing a contract extension, technical director Carlos Bocanegra revealed that recruiting players with MLS experience will be one of the priorities this off-season. Something Guzan also agrees with.
“I have always said that this league is unique. You know it, I know it, we know it. It is unique,” he said on Sunday. “You look back at the year we were successful, you look at other successful MLS teams around the league and there seems to be a common denominator for MLS experience, MLS guys who understand what matches are about, understand what it takes to win after-season games. “
In recent years alone, Atlanta United have seen the likes of Michael Parkhurst, Jeff Larentowicz and Darlington Nagbe leave – all the basics of their successes in 2018 and 2019, but left unforeseen in terms of their vast experience in this league.
It feels like this team still has its training wheels on and, just as it was before their inauguration campaign in 2017, it will be up to Bocanegra, Darren Eales and Co to fill in the list of veterans who know how to get it Done.
Small corrections, but ones that can make this group of individual talents a serious team in 2022.