March 10, 2019 Atlanta: Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer (right) reacts in the final minutes of a 1-1 draw against FC Cincinnati in their MLS soccer match on Sunday, March 10, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

The next 12 days may determine Atlanta United’s season

Atlanta United won’t play a game until it takes on New England on April 13 in the abandoned goliath (for soccer) that is Gillette Stadium.

But the next 12 days may determine if the Five Stripes will be able to defend their MLS title.

The team is last in the 12-team East with just two points. There are still plenty of games to make up the three points that separate the Five Stripes from seventh-place Orlando.

After a brutal start to the season in which the team mostly unsuccessfully played seven games in 24 days, it is now bizarrely in the midst of playing two games in a month.

The first game came Saturday in the Biblical storm that made Columbus’ Mapfre Stadium unplayable and the game unwatchable to everyone except referee and part merman Joe Dickerson.

The puddles on the field and inability to dribble or pass are not why Atlanta United lost 2-0, dropping it to 0-2-2 in league play with just two goals scored.

No, Atlanta United lost because of two gigantic mistakes on defense made by a cadre of players, and Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen making three incredible saves.

Which brings us to this week.

The previous two weeks were the first time since preseason camp that Atlanta United had time to work out Frank de Boer’s formations and tactics, particularly on offense.

But most of the players on offense weren’t available to train because they were on international duty with their respective country’s teams. That group of players included Josef Martinez, Hector Villalba, Pity Martinez, Ezequiel Barco and Andrew Carleton.

De Boer should have all of those players available, as well as most of the midfielders and defenders, to work out what will be its base formation and how it wants to execute within that formation over the next 12 days.

De Boer has tried a 3-4-3 with a flat midfield. He has tried a 3-4-3 with a diamond-shape midfield. He has tried a 3-5-2. Against Columbus, he tried a 4-3-3, which is the formation I think he should have started the season with because it’s what the team played most of the previous two seasons under former manager Gerardo Martino.

I know that de Boer said they started with a 3-4-3 because of the injury suffered by defender Franco Escobar on the first day of training camp in January. When healthy (he finally returned and started against Columbus), he is the right fullback or wingback. 

Not that it matters, but for two reasons I don’t agree with his logic to change a whole formation because of the loss of one player: the first is the injury happened on Jan. 15, giving the team more than a month to move someone over and get them ready before the team opened the season at Herediano in the Champions League. Mikey Ambrose, who has now played left wingback, left fullback and right wingback, could have been that guy. If he’s good enough to play three positions so far, he’s likely good enough to have started at right fullback.

Second, when de Boer was hired he said he wasn’t going to change too much because it was obviously working. So, why not use one of the two formations, either the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 or 3-5-2 that Atlanta United mostly used in becoming arguably the most successful expansion franchise in MLS history? Instead he switched to a formation that is the hardest for players to learn, and with so much at stake at the beginning of the season when there would so many games to play that making tweaks and changes would be almost impossible.

The results have shown that the 3-4-3 was an unwise choice. The team was shutout in two of its first four games. It scored a goal that came off a deflection in the first game against Herediano, and then four in the return leg against the Costa Rican squad that looked unbelievably confused. The manager was fired the next week.

After being shut out in a dispirited loss at D.C. United, Atlanta United scored just one goal in a tie with Cincinnati. 

It scored one goal in defeating Monterrey, which had a 3-0 lead after the first leg and didn’t need to push too much, which made Atlanta United’s play at Mercedes-Benz Stadium probably look better than it actually was. It was better, but not good enough.

The 3-4-3 with a diamond made its debut against Philadelphia. It was a disaster. When the Union had the ball, there weren’t enough Atlanta United defenders. When Atlanta United had the ball, there weren’t enough attackers. The problems were similar to what was going on with the 3-4-3 with a flat midfield. In game, de Boer smartly switched to a 3-5-2, which started to work, and then to a 4-3-3, which resulted in the tying goal.

And then came the international break with the first chance to rest, relax and regroup before Columbus.

De Boer selected the 4-2-3-1, or 4-3-3, formation because he thought it would be the best matchup (more on that in a bit) for the Crew. 

Atlanta United on offense looked good. It created several quality chances, two from Villalba, two from Julian Gressel and another from Barco. It looked more like the team of the previous two years than it has against anyone other than Herediano in the second leg of that series.

Still, no goals were scored for a team that averaged more than two goals per game in each of the previous two seasons.

But the defense collapsed on Columbus’ two goals. I don’t have enough fingers to point out the mistakes on the goals, so I won’t.

Which brings us back to this week and the beginning of next week.

De Boer should have all of his players. He now has the time to discuss and drill whatever he feels is the best fit for his team.

It would be wise, in my opinion, to take two thoughts from Martino. 

For the next few games, instead of focusing too much about how to best match up with New England, or Dallas, or Colorado (Atlanta United’s opponents in the next three games), focus mostly on Atlanta United and drill, and re-drill its best practices. Martino said he rarely worried about the opponent’s individual players, but did look at their overall tactics and tendencies and how Atlanta United, doing what it does, could negate and/or exploit what the other team did well.

Within that focus, keep things simple for a bit. No more formation changes. Pick one and roll with it. Of course, de Boer did that at the beginning of the season, but I don’t think it worked for the reasons I listed.

Picking the formation should start with what is going to get Josef Martinez involved in the offense. I can only imagine what the league’s reigning MVP is thinking. He rarely gets service. He has just 10 shots, three on goal, through four league games. He didn’t attempt a shot at D.C. or at Columbus. That’s an average of 2.5 shots per game and less than one on goal per game. Last year, he averaged 2.85 shots per game, 1.6 on goal.

How to get Josef Martinez involved is a complex question because it will involve getting Pity Martinez and Barco involved. 

Neither player has looked comfortable this season. 

Barco’s best run of games happened last year when he came off the bench in the playoffs. As a starter this season, he has had two really good games, and then a few in which his impact wasn’t as obvious. He is a technically gifted player. It’s just not clear how he fits in within the scheme. I think he can be a bridge midfielder between the defense and offense in the middle of the field. Trying him out wide hasn’t worked the few times that’s happened this season.

Pity Martinez is also technically gifted, but has looked lost. To be fair, he is experiencing the same things Barco went through last year: new country, new culture, new league, new team, new teammates, new manager, new formation ... new everything. I can’t imagine how challenging this must be.

I also think that he works best in the middle of the field, either underneath or alongside Josef Martinez because he also hasn’t had an impact on the wing.

These are just a few of the problems that de Boer must solve in the next 12 days to get Atlanta United back on track in an attempt to defend its MLS Cup.

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About the Author

Doug Roberson
Doug Roberson
Doug Roberson covers the Atlanta United and Major League Soccer.
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