Reviewing Atlanta United preseason predictions

Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada (10)thumps up the crowd after scoring during the second half against Columbus Crew in Game 2 of a first-round MLS playoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. 
 Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada (10)thumps up the crowd after scoring during the second half against Columbus Crew in Game 2 of a first-round MLS playoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Atlanta United’s MLS season is over. It’s time to go back and review the preseason predictions.

Some of the predictions I made in February were prescient, particularly the production of the Designated Players. So, focus on that, please.

What was written well before the team went 13-9-12:

Atlanta United’s season will be success if:

1. It makes the playoffs.

Part of what was written: “Club President Garth Lagerwey said the goal is to host a playoff game.”

What happened: Atlanta United made the playoffs, and it got to host a game. The first was because it finished in sixth place in the East. The second mostly was because the first round of the playoffs was expanded this season into a best-of-three format in which both teams got to host at least one game. While it was good that the team made the playoffs, it should be a concern that it failed to take advantage of several opportunities it had to finish at least fourth, which would have resulted in it getting home-field advantage in the first round. Also, the team hasn’t won a playoff series or played in a championship match since 2019.

2 The younger players continue to improve.

Part of what was written: “There’s not only Thiago Almada to consider, but the team has several younger players that it’s hoping continue to improve and perhaps become coveted assets.”

What happened: This was very much a success. Almada, who scored 11 goals and had a league-high 19 assists, finished in the top three in the league’s MVP voting. Among the team’s Homegrown signees who played a lot, Caleb Wiley, Machop Chol, Jay Fortune and Tyler Wolff combined for 11 goals and seven assists in regular-season matches. Edwin Mosquera, one of its Under-22 initiative signings, added three goals and an assist. However, it didn’t work out as well for two of its other Under-22 players, Santiago Sosa and Franco Ibarra. Sosa didn’t appear in the final six regular-season matches. Ibarra was loaned to Toronto midseason, where he barely played. It’s probable that both will be traded, transferred or loaned. The club declined to pick up next season’s contract option on Chol.

3. The DPs produce.

Part of what was written: “It needs Almada, Giorgos Giakoumakis and Luiz Araujo, the three DPs on the roster after the buyout of Josef Martinez, to combine for at least 30 goals and 30 assists this season.”

What happened: It can be argued that no other team in MLS got as much from its DPs as Atlanta United. Giakoumakis, Almada, Saba Lobjanidze and, before he was sold, Luiz Araujo combined for 34 goals and 28 assists in regular-season matches. Giakoumakis also became a leader, joining Brad Guzan, as one of the players to take hold of the team in the locker room.

Atlanta United’s season will be a failure if:

1. The injuries continue to pile up.

Part of what was written: “Last season was derailed by the more than 20 injuries that kept players out of at least two consecutive games.”

What happened: Nothing could have been as bad as last season. This season was much better. Pineda typically had options for the starting lineup because there was quality depth. The core group of starters, Guzan, Miles Robinson, Brooks Lennon, Wiley, Matheus Rossetto, Almada and Giakoumakis made at least 27 appearances each.

While the injuries weren’t a big problem, the international breaks were because Atlanta United typically was without between four to seven players. The team went 2-2-1 in matches played during international windows.

2. The team’s shooting woes continue.

Part of what was written: “Despite leading the league in shots (537) and finishing second in shots on goal (180), it finished fifth in expected goals (55.8) and tied for 11th in goals (48).”

What happened: This wasn’t a problem. The team finished second in goals (66) and sixth in shots on goal (171) despite finishing 13th in shots (440). It finished second in percentage of shots on target (38.9). The team took smarter shots than it did last season, and having a poaching striker in Giakoumakis certainly helped because most of his goals were one-touches from close to goal.

Mathematically, the season was interesting because Atlanta United finished with an expected goals total of 48.7, so it outperformed the probabilities by almost 20 goals. That’s a lot. Conversely, defensively the team had an expected goals total of 46. It gave up 53. So, it was unlucky in some situations.

3. The midfield fails to contribute.

Part of what was written: “The team must get some sort of offensive output from its central and defensive midfielders.”

What happened: This is a story in two parts. The first were the matches before the summer transfer window, when Pineda tried different combinations, but none won the job.

The second was after the window, when Tristan Muyumba was brought in. With Muyumba in the starting lineup and winning loose ball after loose ball, Rossetto, one of the players who struggled in the season’s first half, became a very effective player at controlling the pace of matches. When that duo was at its best, it allowed Lennon and Wiley to get forward and join Almada, Giakoumakis and the wingers in the attack. Rossetto’s contract expired after the season.

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