Atlanta United's Franco Escobar turns defense into offense in Wednesday's win against Toronto. (Atlanta United)

Atlanta United’s defense locking down opponents

As Atlanta United’s offense is heating up with six goals in its past three games, its defense has shown a cold efficiency with three shutouts in its past three games and four in its past five.

Atlanta United has won each of those three games, the cap being Wednesday night’s 2-0 win against Toronto in which the visitors didn’t have a shot on goal. It was the second time in Atlanta United’s history that it held an opponent without a shot on goal. The first was New England in 2017.

“Guys have been putting in a ton of work on the defensive side of the ball, our shape has been very good, we are understanding what is expected of us on the defensive side of the ball, and that is setting us up well for the counter attack, which is something we are very dangerous at,” Michael Parkhurst said.

Manager Frank de Boer estimated that the team focused on defense about 70 percent of the time during the preseason.

While the offense struggled in the Champions League that started the season, the defense had a few good moments as it worked out kinks. As the team began league play, and as it has had time to train with a healthy group of players, that work is showing.

“We play differently than last year, but now, we’re feeling what Frank wants and what we want too,” Leandro Gonzalez Pirez said. “We’re keeping possession, managing the game, attacking. We are a more intelligent team now, whereas last year we were a more passionate team and running around like crazy, and now, we try to make choose the right moment to press, make the best choice, be patient with the ball. We are changing that and doing good and winning.”

Atlanta United is tied with LAFC (which has played two more games) for the fewest goals allowed (8). The team’s four shutouts are tied for second-most behind NYCFC, D.C. United and Montreal.

The shutouts haven’t come against teams in good form. New England is struggling to score. Sporting KC and Toronto were missing key offensive players. Colorado is just awful. In the past four shutouts, Atlanta United’s defense is allowing an average of 7.25 shots with just 1.75 on goal per game.

But the shutouts on defense have coincided with de Boer being able to select the same group of experienced starters: Franco Escobar at right fullback, Miles Robinson and Gonzalez Pirez as the centerbacks, and Brek Shea at left fullback. Parkhurst has come in on the right or the left as a starter or sub, with Eric Remedi, Jeff Larentowicz and Darlington Nagbe interchanging as the defensive midfielders.

Each of the players has at least one particular skill. Escobar and Robinson are very fast and athletic. Shea has straight-line speed. Gonzalez Pirez is very aggressive and good at bringing the ball forward. Parkhurst reads the game possibly better than anyone in MLS and is a deft passer. Remedi and Nagbe are good with the ball in tight spaces. Larentowicz brings leadership and tackling. 

“I think two games in a row where it’s like a mature performance,” Larentowicz said. “I think we’re always for the most part in control. I think there were times in the middle, towards the end of the first half where Toronto got a lot of possession, but we weren’t giving up chances, and I think that that shows a bit of control that we have. We might not have the ball, but I think we’re moving well as a team, defending well and not giving up those opportunities. Like you said, three shutouts in a row is a testament to that.” 

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