March 17, 2019 Atlanta: Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco (right) gets five from Darlington Nagbe after heading the ball into the net past Philadelphia Union defender Haris Medunjanin to tie it up 1-1 during the second half in a MLS soccer match that ended in a 1-1 draw on Sunday, March 17, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Atlanta United goes to work during break

Confused and tired, Atlanta United’s manager and players hope that the international break will give the team a chance to rest and reset.

Right now, the team is not playing like one that won the MLS Cup, nor does it yet look like it will be able to defend its title.

“Frustration is certainly there,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “That’s pretty obvious. Something isn’t clicking the way it did last year. That’s on us as a group to find that and figure it out. That’s part of it to a certain extent. We knew going into the season that it wasn’t going to be easy. So, we have to use these next two weeks to improve and make sure we are ready to go against Columbus (on March 30).”

But it’s early, and there are reasons the Five Stripes aren’t looking good -- and reasons it eventually can.

The team has played seven games since Feb. 21, an intense amount of games for a squad still learning new manager Frank de Boer’s systems and tactics, as well as each other. As a result, the team is 2-3-2, was eliminated from the Champions League, a tournament it wanted to win, and is winless in three MLS games.

While the defense has been solid under the emerging Miles Robinson, the offense has scored one goal or less in six of its seven games. Playing out of a 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-2 formation almost exclusively, it averaged 2.05 goals per game each of the past two league seasons.

The 3-4-3 formation preferred by de Boer is difficult to learn and a curious choice, considering de Boer knew the team was going to play so many games in such a short time with no opportunity to work out the kinks.  But now it can.

“It’s always hard for every coach from a team point of view because you really want those two weeks to get your system in or what kind-of things you want to discuss with your players,” de Boer said. “And, then you only get three days (because) they’re coming back probably Wednesday or Thursday and then on Saturday, we travel to Columbus. That’s quite hard of course.”

De Boer is trying new formations to get the offense going. 

The team trotted out a 3-4-3 with a diamond midfield in Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Philadelphia. When that wasn’t working, the team went to a 4-3-3. It didn’t put a shot on goal until the second half. It also switched to a 3-5-2, which is one of the formations it used the previous two seasons under previous manager Gerardo Martino.

Still, it didn’t put a shot on goal until the second half.

“We’re all frustrated a little bit,” captain Michael Parkhurst said. “We want to be creating more chances and scoring more goals. We’re trying to do that. We’re not just trying to out-possess a team, that’s not what we’re going into a game thinking. We’re thinking we want to score goals and create chances, be offensive, and pin teams in the other half. It’s not happening right now for us and when that’s the case we need to try and have some shutouts.”

An issue for de Boer in finding a way to spark the offense within whatever formation he prefers during the next eight days. That’s when the team will be missing most of the players who start up front. Called up to their respective national teams were Josef Martinez (Venezuela), Hector Villalba (Paraguay), Pity Martinez (Argentina), Ezequiel Barco (Argentina Under-20s) and Andrew Carleton (U.S. U-20s). Also called up was Robinson (U.S. U-23s). Most aren’t expected to return to the team until March 27.

Not only will they not get to practice with Atlanta United, those players won’t get much rest, and de Boer and Julian Gresssel said everyone is fatigued.

“I think all of us need it,” Gressel said. “Some guys are obviously traveling, and all the best to them, but for us, and me, it will be some good time off.”

So, the remaining players will rest, train and try to come together.

“I sure hope so,” Guzan said. “That’s the plan, otherwise it’s going to be a long year. We’ve got to find something for sure.”

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