The Atlanta United email of the decade

I don’t do this often, in fact I can’t remember ever before doing this, but I wanted to run a portion of this email from Atlanta United supporter John Carolin. I received it before last week’s match at Columbus. The man put in a lot of work. It’s a fascinating read. I hope you’ll take the time to respond to his points.

Here we go:

I’ve divided my comments/thoughts/questions into three categories: thoughts on the on-field aspects of the club, thoughts on the off-field aspects on the club, and thoughts on the supporters. I’ll run through them in that order.

Regarding the on-field product of the club:

Like a lot of the fan base, I’m growing increasingly frustrated by the club’s insistence that dominating possession and passing accuracy is the same as dominating the game. As you mentioned on the latest episode of SFS, various club personnel been beating this drum since at least the De Boer era. I’m interested in the field of (American) football analytics and there are some big parallels here.

The conventional, old-school (i.e. outdated) football wisdom is that completion percentage is a good measure of QB skill and that time of possession is a good measure of how well a team controls the game. While both of these statements usually aren’t straight-up wrong, they can often be incredibly misleading.

I’ve never played a down of organized football, but I’m confident that I could put up a respectable completion percentage if I was only ever asked to throw short, quick passes to receivers that aren’t tightly covered. That’s why analysts have developed models that estimate a QB’s expected completion percentage, essentially accounting for the “degree of difficulty” of their throws. The best QBs aren’t the ones that complete the greatest raw % of their passes, but are instead those that exceed expectations by the greatest amount.

I’m a UGA fan and was very disappointed to hear someone (can’t remember who) critiquing the team during the middle of last season because they didn’t have great time of possession numbers and didn’t “dominate” offensively in terms of executing a lot of drives that took a bunch of plays, chewed a bunch of clock, and traveled really far down the field. Yes, many teams would improve if they created longer drives and had more possession. Making these changes would hurt the performance of plenty of other teams, though. Georgia didn’t have short drives because we were stalling out and punting or turning the ball over. We had short drives because our defense and special teams gave us a lot of short fields and our offense was explosive and scored very quickly. In order to create longer, more time consuming drives, the defense, special teams, and offense would all have had to perform worse.

This shows that completion percentage and time of possession aren’t valuable by themselves. If Andy Reid called plays differently, it would probably be trivial for Patrick Mahomes to complete 85%+ of his passes and for the Chiefs to average well over 45 minutes of possession per game. Doing so would have the side effect of ruining the team’s offense. Pat Mahomes would be completing too many of his passes and the Chiefs would be having too much of the ball.

An analogy: This would be like a retirement planner bragging about how safe and secure their retirement plan is while neglecting to mention that it only achieves this security by investing your life savings entirely into TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities) that pay out 0.4% (real) interest. Yes, their investment has very little risk attached to it, but investing in an index fund is nearly as safe in the long run and would pay out a lot more.

Both of these apply to soccer, too. The general public actually has access to a (fairly good, from what I can tell) passing model in the form of American Soccer Analysis’s xPass model. Atlanta United has the highest expected completion percentage by a fairly healthy margin (83%, 0.7% higher than the next place team. That 0.7% gap is larger than the gap that separates the 2nd place team from the 6th place team). In other words, we attempt the easiest passes of any MLS team (looking at the “vert” statistic, which indicates the average “vertical” distance of a completed pass, reinforces this conclusion. Atlanta scores lower than any other MLS team on that measure). ASA also calculates a +/- per 100 passes statistic, that calculates how many more passes you complete than expected per 100 pass attempts. This is a much better measure of the actual quality of your players. If I counted correctly, the team ranks 13th out of the 28 MLS teams. Right about average. In other words, this is a team made up of average to slightly-above-average passers (on the whole) that are killing it on some very, very easy assignments. They’re passing far too conservatively.

There isn’t much data on possession value that’s available to the public, but I know for a fact that analysts at a wide range of teams and organizations are working on those questions. I’d be shocked if the numbers showed that Atlanta United wasn’t being too conservative when it comes to retaining possession.

While the conventional wisdom in football circles may not have changed yet, these are fairly well established beliefs among the football analytics community. My understanding (this was the impression that I got when I visited the Sloan conference in Boston a few years back, at least) was that the field of soccer analytics (including in the MLS, such as Ravi Ramineni at Seattle) was at least as (and likely much more) advanced than that of American football analytics. While I’m not as familiar with the thoughts of the soccer analytics community, I have to assume that they’ve reached similar conclusions.

To wrap this all up, a question: Pineda seems to be fairly open to analytics in general (he worked alongside Ramineni in Seattle!) and the team has made them an important part of at least certain types of decision-making in the past (Lucy Rushton was outstanding!). Does the team still have a functioning analytics department? Does Pineda disagree with the analytics community that it is possible to complete too many passes and have too much possession? Or is he aware of the issue and trying to put out an encouraging message, even if that means saying things that he knows to be at least partly untrue?

There’s plenty more that I could talk about when it comes to the club’s on-field performance, but this one point has already dragged on far too long. I’ll save them for later. Maybe the team surprises me and fixes them before I spend the time writing everything up!

Regarding the off-field parts of the club:

Even ignoring (as much as is reasonably possible) the club’s lackluster on-field performance, the atmosphere around the team has suffered some over the last year or two. It can’t be helped that the pandemic hit at the worst possible time and interrupted the fantastic growth that the club was having, but things have fallen off even apart from that. I’m a founding member and am not at this time even remotely considering giving up my ticket, but I’m certainly not as excited to cut that proverbial check as I once was.

The matchday experience (again, ignoring the on-field performance as much as is reasonably possible) has dropped off. Fun, small details have fallen by the wayside and haven’t been replaced (one thing that comes to mind in particular is the playing of the instrumental of Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You” (cough) underneath the opposing team introductions (they might still do it on occasion but it isn’t as regular as it used to be, at least as far as I can tell). While it’s still cheaper than Truist Park, the “fan first pricing” model for concessions seems to have fallen by the wayside (I really miss the $2 hot dogs. How can you have a sporting venue without hot dogs???). I’ll touch more on this later, but the SGs and supporters section in general is a lot less compelling than it was even in early 2021, too.

Outside of games themselves, things have also fallen off a bit. There seem to be fewer community events (or at least they’re not as good at marketing the events that they do have as they used to be). I don’t see flags flying nearly as often as I used to. The club isn’t visible in the same ways that it was earlier in its life (fewer billboards, fewer MARTA cars have the stripes on the doors (and they’re all still up from back in 2017/18, I think. They didn’t update them with the new kits or anything). The customer support for ticket stuff is still great, thankfully.

I noticed that this dropoff did coincide with the departure of Sarah Kate (“Skate”) Noftsinger from her role as head of marketing to take a similar role with Adidas North America. I’ve spoken to a couple of folks that interacted with her in that capacity and they said fantastic things about her and the work that she did for the club. From what I can tell, whoever they hired to replace her had some massive shoes to fill and it seems like they’ve struggled a bit to do so. I hope that the team recognizes this as an area of (relative, at least) weakness and makes meaningful efforts to shore things up.

A very off-the-wall question that probably can be answered with a quick, dismissive “no”: Would it be remotely possible to bring her back to the club as a part of the FO shakeup following Darren’s departure? Given that Darren was president of the club, not the technical director, it doesn’t seem that unreasonable for her to take over as club president. She doesn’t have a background in the technical side of running a club, but that’s why the team has a technical director. She does have at least some experience with the marketing and (some of the) business aspects of the role. Maybe she doesn’t take over the “president” role itself but takes on some other larger role that includes filling Darren’s shoes as the public-facing head of the organization alongside a more private, strictly-business figure that negotiates sponsorship deals and stuff like that. I think the club misses her a lot and now would be an opportunity to bring her back in a much larger role (if that’s even something that she’s interested in. I don’t know her myself. I just heard a lot of praise from folks that normally have pretty high standards and figured it was worth asking the question).

Regarding the supporters:

The SGs are pretty uninspiring at the moment.

I understand that a lot of this comes down to the team’s lackluster performance and the apparent complacency (at times, at least) of the front office. That isn’t everything, though. I realize that I don’t have much of a leg to stand on here, since I’m not a SG member (I’ve been meaning to join one (probably Footie Mob, but I’m not 100% sure) for a long time now but just haven’t gotten around to it), but I don’t sit (well, stand) all that far from the capo stand (Section 105, reserved supporters section) and it is becoming a bit stale. The chant list has barely changed since 2018/19 (and even then most of them weren’t all that original, from what I can gather). There are only two player-related chants, and one of them is just chanting the player’s name to Seven Nation Army, among the most overplayed stadium songs/jock jamz of all time. From what I can recall off the top of my head, we don’t have any chants that are derivative of Atlanta (or even Georgia) music (“We Ready” isn’t really a chant, since it is also played over the (frankly, terrible) MBS PA system). I certainly don’t find myself chanting along nearly as often anymore (admittedly, it doesn’t help that the prices on beer have jumped way up since the stadium opened (and the fact that they only sell giant cans or large drafts. I still have to drive home from the MARTA station, after all. Even if the price isn’t any better, a more reasonably sized beer is easier to justify). It’s a lot harder to yell until your throat hurts if you’re stone-cold sober, IMO). I understand that it can be difficult to write a good chant and to teach folks the lyrics and get them to chant along. That’s the job of capos (and the SGs more generally), though. If you want the job, do the entire job. Also, I hate that we rarely make tifos anymore. I understand that they take a ton of work to make happen, and that it probably isn’t reasonable to see one at every home match, but it’d be nice to see something (even something relatively small) at least a bit more often than we do now.

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Atlanta United’s 2022 MLS schedule

Feb. 27 Atlanta United 3, Sporting KC 1

March 5 Colorado 3, Atlanta United 0

March 13 Atlanta United 2, Charlotte 1

March 19 Atlanta United 3, Montreal 3

April 2 Atlanta United 1, D.C. United 0

April 10 Charlotte 1, Atlanta United 0

April 16 Atlanta United 0, Cincinnati 0

April 24 Miami 2, Atlanta United 1

April 30 Montreal 2, Atlanta United 1

May 7 Atlanta United 4, Chicago 1

May 15 Atlanta United 2, New England 2

May 21 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

May 28 Columbus 2, Atlanta United 1

June 19 Atlanta United 2, Miami 0

June 25 Toronto 2, Atlanta United 1

June 30 New York Red Bulls 2, Atlanta United 1

July 3 Atlanta United 2, NYCFC 2

July 9 Austin 3, Atlanta United 0

July 13 Atlanta United 2, Real Salt Lake 1

July 17 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1

July 24 L.A. Galaxy 2, Atlanta United 0

July 30 Atlanta United 0, Chicago 0

Aug. 6 Atlanta United 2, Seattle 1

Aug. 13 Atlanta United 2, Cincinnati 2

Aug. 17 New York Red Bulls 2, Atlanta United 1

Aug. 21 Atlanta United 2, Columbus 2

Aug. 28 vs. D.C. United, 4 p.m., UNIV

Aug. 31 at Philadelphia, 7 p.m., FS1

Sept. 4 at Portland, 5:30 p.m., FOX

Sept. 10 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept. 14 at Orlando, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept. 17 vs. Philadelphia, 3:30 p.m., UniMas

Oct. 1 at New England, 1 p.m., UniMas

Oct. 9 vs. NYCFC, TBD, BSSO/BSSE