Atlanta United’s bad start got worse Wednesday night. The MLS Cup holders lost 3-0 to Monterrey of Liga MX in Leg 1 of the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League. Almost any result would have been better – losing 1-nil or especially 2-1 would have been most welcome — but United’s first four games haven’t yielded much in the way of “better.”
In three away matches – we stipulate that these have been far-flung – Atlanta United has been outscored 8-1. In each game, it has had an edge in possession. Over the three games, it has managed six shots on goal. Its opponents have managed 20. It’s a small sample size, yes, and it’s not as if United’s MLS brethren fared much better in their Leg 1 quarterfinals: The four MLS clubs were beaten by an aggregate 9-1.
Under Tata Martino, Atlanta United led the MLS in goals last season but was only fourth in possession. It could play with or without the ball; didn’t much matter. Frank de Boer succeeded Martino, and de Boer’s background is in Total Football. Back in the ’70s, Ajax of Amsterdam and the Dutch national team were the cradles of Total Football, which would, via the architect Rinus Michels and his leading apostle Johann Cruyff, make its way to Barcelona. Much later, de Boer — and his twin brother, Ronald — would play for all three of those teams. Frank de Boer’s first managerial job was with Ajax; Ronald remains on staff there.
Total Football is steeped in possession, and when it works it can be a beautiful thing. It has receded in popularity because possession without goals can yield tedium, which is the opposite of beauty. Frank de Boer has said his Atlanta United will press high — that’s the style in vogue, and its creator was the Argentine Marcelo Bielsa, who was among Martino’s mentors — but this same Frank de Boer was fired at Crystal Palace after losing his first four Premier League games without scoring a goal. Said forward Wilfried Zaha: “He wanted to make us into a team that had more possession.”
In its best years, Crystal Palace is a mid-table team. Atlanta United is the reigning MLS champ. Even with Miguel Almiron gone to Newcastle, United still should have the league’s best roster, and when you have the best players you could play almost any old way and win. And, to be fair, we haven’t seen nearly enough to know exactly what de Boer’s system entails. As he noted last week, when you’re playing every three days — that’s what you do when you’re involved in the Champions League — you don’t really practice; you just try to rest and recover.
That will change eventually. It will change really soon if United doesn’t offset a three-goal deficit in Leg 2 against Monterrey here next week, and that will be tough. We recall that United’s biggest win en route to the MLS Cup was its 3-0 home thrashing of the Red Bulls in Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. Leg 2 in New Jersey was mostly a snooze, the Red Bulls scoring only deep into stoppage time, by which point it was too late.
We’ve just seen in the UEFA Champions League that Leg 1 deficits can be overturned. Ajax — yep, Ajax — went to Real Madrid and won 4-1. Manchester United went to Paris Saint-Germain and won 3-1. Unlike Ajax and Man U., Atlanta United will be playing at home, and this time not at Kennesaw State but in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. If it gets an early goal, it’ll have a chance. If not … well, not to be a spoilsport, but bowing out of the CCL mightn’t be the worst thing for a team that could stand a bit of time to get to know itself and its coach.
When you’re juggling competitions, a coach can’t just prepare for the next opponent; he also must manage his roster. Against Monterrey, de Boer started 10 of the 11 men who lined up in the MLS opener against D.C. United on Sunday. Atlanta United’s first substitute on Wednesday entered in the 90th minute on a night the home side score twice in the preceding 10 minutes. It could have been that de Boer was trying to see out a 1-nil loss and got burned. It could also be that he doesn’t have a real feel for his club, which is understandable. He has coached these guys for four games, four games that have come thick and fast.
Still, nobody expected Atlanta United’s first four games to produce three losses, all by at least two goals. Yes, this Champions League stuff is new to United, and yes, this is a competition teams from Liga MX have historically owned. That said, one of the reasons Atlanta United is such a big deal is because so many people come to watch it play. This isn’t a club that has ever flown under the civic radar. Three losses in four games will be noticed.
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