What have we learned about Atlanta United now that the defending champs have played half of their 34 games in MLS this season?
Atlanta United is 9-6-2; its 29 points are good for fourth place in the East. It trails first-place Philadelphia by three points but has played two less games. It has a plus-eight goal difference because of just 15 goals allowed, second fewest in the league. Last season through 17 games, it had 34 points and a plus-14 goal difference.
So, while it has certainly felt like a different team under new manager Frank de Boer with a different playing style, its results are fairly similar to that under previous manager Gerardo Martino.
“I think we can improve in e very aspect of the game,” de Boer said of the next 17 games, which starts Wednesday at Chicago and continues Sunday against New York Red Bulls at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
De Boer said he thinks that the players are starting to better understand when and how to press opponents during games, particularly compared to the season’s first three games when the team was outscored 6-2, but must still improve its focus for all 90 minutes.
“That lack of concentration, the opponent can punish you,” he said.
“A lot of times it starts with unselfish runs to create space for someone else,” he said. “I think we can do better at the runs and choose the right player.
“The first guy (who runs), everybody reacts to that. But if you make another choice (to pass) they have to make a different move and suddenly will be out of position. You will create more chances.”
Here are more things learned after the first 17 games:
De Boer can manage
The start of the season was rough. The choice to play a 3-4-3 formation proved well-intentioned but unwise and the results (losses at D.C. United and a draw to the comically inept Cincinnati) proved that to be true.
Other choices made by de Boer, such as the lack of subs at Monterrey, were quizzically odd.
Social media, particularly supporters of Crystal Palace, crackled with “told you sos” about de Boer’s ability to make solid tactical choices and to man-manage.
And then came the game against Philadelphia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Recognizing what he wanted wasn’t working, de Boer scrapped the 3-4-3 during the game for a four-man backline that the team hasn’t veered from since and the results dramatically improved. The team drew with the Union.
As for man-management, de Boer and the players met to discuss expectations and preferences around the next game at Columbus. It was a clear-the-air meeting.
The team has won 10 of 14 since, including two games in the U.S. Open Cup.
De Boer has consistently made the right choices in the lineup, particularly when picking depth players for spot starts. Justin Meram’s two goal against Montreal are an example.
Front office is doing well
Meram. Flo Pogba. Brek Shea. Dion Pereira and yes, Pity Martinez (more on him in the next section), who were acquired in the offseason, have contributed to Atlanta United’s positive play. Other than Martinez, none of those players cost the team too much to acquire.
Meram, acquired in a trade with Columbus with the struggling Crew paying most of his salary, has two league goals.
Pogba, signed on a free transfer, has been solid at centerback or left back.
Shea, signed as a free agent, has been maligned on social media, but has put in good shift after shift at left fullback with nine starts as part of 17 appearances. Remember, George Bello was supposed to be the starter at left back.
Pereira, signed on a free transfer, has four starts as part of nine appearances and has one assist while being a steady performer on the wing. He’s not flashy but has technical ability.
The team recently completed a loan for Emerson Hyndman, a midfielder who could back-up Darlington Nagbe. The loan for Hyndman includes an option to buy after the 2019 season.
Depth at either fullback is also needed and the team has two roster spots available with the loans of Lagos Kunga to Memphis in the USL and Jon Gallagher to Hibernian in Scotland. The future of Kevin Kratz, who has been injured most of the season, is also a question mark. The team could put him on the season-ending injury list, which would open a Senior roster spot.
Pity Martinez is a work in progress
Things aren’t working out like most thought for Martinez, who has two goals and three assists in 16 appearances, including 12 starts.
He came from River Plate as the reigning South American Player of the Year and a presumed fill-in for Miguel Almiron, who was sold to Newcastle.
Physically, Martinez has looked overmatched with an inability to get away from defenders either laterally or vertically up the field. Calls from officials he was receiving earlier in this season after being knocked down, or falling down, have started to decrease with the hand-wave signaling “get up and play” becoming more common.
Mentally, his penchant for taking long-range shots that seldom are on goal (39 shots, 14 on goal) is curious. And his inconsistent effort on defense or running out passes resulted in boos from a home crowd on Sunday.
Martinez was subbed out after slightly more than 60 minutes because de Boer said he was making poor choices that were a danger to the team.
“Has to recognize moments to take risks or play simple,” de Boer said.
Still, Martinez has shown that he can hit a brilliant pass if given time and space. He is statistically among the best in the league at creating chances. Few of them are being converted, which isn’t his fault.
Martinez has a history of starting slowly at his former clubs, and then developing into a phenomenal player.
Miles Robinson is a revelation
When training camp opened in January, Atlanta United’s presumed starting centerbacks had finished Nos. 3 and 5 in voting for Defender of the Year last season. Robinson, selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2017 SuperDraft, seemed like depth and a spot starter.
It soon became apparent that Robinson was replacing No. 3, Michael Parkhurst, as a starter because he kept starting during the preseason games and he hasn’t stopped.
Robinson’s age (22), size, speed and confidence in de Boer, and the coaches’ confidence in him, were evident.
“Nice to have faith in your coach and your coach have faith in you,” Robinson said.
Robinson has 16 starts in MLS as part of 17 appearances and seldom put a foot wrong. His play earned a call-up to the U23 U.S. men’s national team and among the players in the pool for Gold Cup consideration. That he wasn’t selected by manager Gregg Berhalter is motivation to keep trying, according to Robinson.
As he has grown, Robinson is starting to show more skills.
The past few games he has hit long passes to strikers, which is something he was reticent to try earlier this season and something that de Boer wasn’t ready for him to try.
Things are different now.
“He can make mistakes,” de Boer said. “If you don’t try, you will never know if you can do it. Practice those things. He’s doing already a great job in every aspect.”
Breakout star in next 17 games: Pity Martinez
Despite his less than stellar results, he hasn’t forgotten how to play soccer.
He just needs time to adapt.
It could have been Montreal’s bunkering, but he didn’t take as many hopeful long-range shots as he in previous games.
De Boer said he has spoken to him about the refereeing in MLS, so you may see him trying to fight through more tackles.
De Boer has also spoken to him about being cognizant of the team’s tactics when he has the ball.
Plus, the team should soon get back Josef Martinez and Ezequiel Barco. That will only help Pity Martinez.
It’s not improbable that he will finish with at least 10 goals and 10 assists.
Season in two quotes
After the 1-1 draw vs. Cincinnati: “Today feels like a loss,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said, who earlier in the interview said the team was “absolutely” frustrated because “it’s been a rough few weeks for us.”
After the 2-1 win vs. Montreal: “I am very proud of the team,” de Boer said. “They played with so much discipline. We still believed and we still played very concentrated even when we conceded 1-1, and I think we really deserved this win. A lot of times we concede late goals, and now we get one and that feels really good and again I think we really deserved it because they put a lot of effort in.”
Five games to watch
July 7 vs. New York Red Bulls (8-6-3): A team that Atlanta United has yet to defeat during the regular season, including falling 1-0 earlier this season despite New York playing most of the game with just 10 men.
July 26 at LAFC (11-2-4): The runaway favorite to win the MLS Cup featuring Carlos Vela, the odds-on favorite to dethrone Josef Martinez as league MVP. It should be an electric atmosphere at the beautiful Banc of California Stadium in what will be the most-hyped game of the year.
Aug 11 vs. NYCFC (6-1-8): The boys in blue lead the East in points per game (1.73) and are also the only team in the East that has played fewer games. Atlanta United can make up that difference with a win at Mercedes-Benz. The teams will meet again in Yankee Stadium on Sept. 25.
Aug. 23 at Orlando (6-8-3): There are better opponents that Atlanta United will play (Seattle and San Jose, for example) but this game should be fun because of the history between the teams. Orlando is in eighth in the East and has a chance to make the playoffs. The Five Stripes could dent that probability with a win.
Aug. 31 at Philadelphia (9-5-5): The standings are likely going to look much different when these teams meet in Chester in the beautiful Talen Energy Stadium. But it’s going to be an exciting game.
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