“We need to be a little bit more dynamic,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said. “I think right now, we're just a little too easy to play against. We need more runs in behind, we need more shooting from distance. We just need to know the offense to click a little bit better. We shook things up a little bit on the offensive side of the ball today to try and spark that but it didn't quite work out. I still think we'll be fine.”
Scoring has been an issue all season. A team that scored 70 goals in each of the past two seasons is on pace to score 36 this season.
The team has won more games that it has lost, but that record has been built largely with a defense that has allowed just 11 goals, tied for the fewest in the league. The offense has scored just 14, tied for the second-fewest, despite the team spending big bucks on three Designated Players who are supposed to be creators and/or scorers.
In Friday’s loss, two of those players combined on the lone goal when Pity Martinez, acquired for a reported fee of $15 million in the offseason, passed to Franco Escobar, whose cross was put in by Josef Martinez, who received a contract raise in the offseason after breaking an MLS record with 34 goals last season.
It was the best scoring chance the team created.
Creating those chances as has been the source of solace. When the chances stop happening, manager Frank de Boer and players might possibly start to worry.
It may be time to start worrying.
The team created six chances against Real Salt Lake, which created 12. It created just eight in last week’s 1-0 loss at Red Bulls, which played 55 minutes with just 10 men but still looked more dangerous on offense than did the Five Stripes.
What is affecting the offense?
Fatigue has been a factor. The team on Friday was playing its sixth game in 20 days part of a stretch of eight games in 28 days. That stretch will finish with two games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against Minnesota on Wednesday and against Chicago on June 1. As manager Frank de Boer said after the loss at Red Bulls, what the mind may want to do the body simply can't.
Travel has been a factor in the fatigue. The MLS schedule was such that the defending champs were forced to fly more than 9,000 miles to play its past three games at Vancouver, at New York and at Salt Lake City in a span of 11 days. The Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLS and the MLS Players Association allows just four charter segments per season. Atlanta United used one to fly back from Vancouver. It flew commercial on the remaining segments.
Injuries and international duty also have been a factor. Ezequiel Barco, the third Designated Player and arguably the team’s most consistent player on offense this season with four goals and one assist, has missed the past five games because he is with Argentina’s U20 national team at the World Cup in Poland. The team has scored one goal or fewer four times since he left.
Hector Villalba stepped in for Barco but suffered an injury at Red Bulls that forced him to miss Friday’s game. De Boer started Dion Pereira, who played solid in his first start but created no chances and had no shots. As Pereira earns more playing time, his production should increase. He has talent. He just needs time.
Tactically, de Boer, who is in his first year managing the squad, is still learning his personnel.
Figuring out how to use Josef Martinez, Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco together effectively remains the first and most important challenge.
Pity Martinez and Barco are similar players in that both are best in the middle where they can create chances for teammates. Pity Martinez is one of the best in MLS at that this season statistically, but has just one assist in 735 minutes, which may be an indicator of the quality of the chances that he is creating. Pity Martinez also has just one goal having taken 25 shots but putting just eight on frame. But, as Parkhurst said, at least someone is shooting. Josef Martinez leads the team six goals on 44 shots, 15 on goal. Last season, he scored 31 goals in league play on 97 shots, 56 on goal. Again, de Boer needs time to be able to work with the players to figure out what will work best.
Figuring out his team’s personnel is one issue. Solving what others team do, specifically when they bunker, remains an issue that started in the team’s first season in 2017. Real Salt Lake didn’t bunker. But other teams have done so, including Red Bulls and Vancouver, to name a few. The combination passes are a key. Early crosses hit before the lines of a defense can be set compactly close to goal are another.
Who can hit those early crosses? The fullbacks. That’s another issue.
The fullbacks have combined for zero goals and just the one assist: Escobar’s against Real Salt Lake. Last year, Escobar, Julian Gressel, Greg Garza, Mikey Ambrose, George Bello and Chris McCann combined for five goals and seven assists.
Because of injuries suffered by first-choice fullbacks Escobar and Bello at different times, de Boer has yet to have an opportunity to start them in the same game. Bello should return by the end of the summer. Though Escobar has had bad luck staying healthy while with Atlanta United, he is back and playing well.
Last season, the fullbacks would bomb forward, often playing on the same line as Josef Martinez. This season, that determination to get up the field has been tempered some by de Boer’s tactics. When the fullbacks don’t get up the field, it robs the formation of width that can stretch the defense and open space for Josef Martinez, as well as eliminate passing outlets for the midfielders. It’s not a coincidence that Atlanta United’s goal against Real Salt Lake came when Escobar, the right fullback, got up the field to put in the cross. Another good opportunity was created when Parkhurst made a run between defenders in the first half. A shoulder tackle by Donny Toia stopped him before he could get in on goal.
As Parkhurst and de Boer have said, they think the team’s offense will be fine. The team still has arguably the most talent and depth as any in MLS.
Lastly, there is this: expectations need to be tempered.
The previous two years when Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez ran roughshod over defenses likely will not be replicated by any players who wear the red and black stripes.
Though I share that opinion, it’s not exclusively mine.
It’s also previous manager Gerardo Martino’s, the man whose shadow covers de Boer.
He said what Atlanta United experienced the previous two seasons with Almiron and Martinez was magical, a once-in-a-every-so-often experience.