Atlanta United learning to close games

Atlanta United hasn’t given up a goal in the second half of a game since the opening loss to New York Red Bulls. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Atlanta United hasn’t given up a goal in the second half of a game since the opening loss to New York Red Bulls. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Atlanta United hasn’t given up a goal in the second half of its past four games, a stretch that started after allowing two in its season-opening defeat to New York Red Bulls.

Following that loss, one that still aggravates some of the MLS expansion team players, a few talked about how they needed to learn how to close out games.

It seems manager Gerardo Martino and his players are quick learners. The Five Stripes will play at Montreal on Saturday with a 2-0-2 record in its past four games. Dallas allowed a goal in the second half of its season-opening game. That’s the only team other than Atlanta United to hold MLS opponents scoreless in the final 45 minutes of games since.

“Teams throughout the world, even the best teams give up late games in goals, it happens,” captain Michael Parkhurst said. “The good teams do it a lot less often. We’ve been able to do that the past few weeks which has been really good.”

Though no team wants to lose, lessons were learned in that loss to New York Red Bulls that helped the team to its rise to second in the Eastern Conference.

“Never will say a loss is a good thing, but you do learn things,” said Jeff Larentowicz, an MLS veteran with more than 320 appearances. “I would love to win and learn something. Finishing out the game is what we needed to do.”

Atlanta United rallied last week to tie Toronto 2-2, holding on to the precious point on the road despite playing with only 10 men following Yamil Asad’s red card in the 75th minute.

In Round 2, the week after the loss to the Red Bulls, Atlanta United jumped on Minnesota United early and ran away with a 6-1 win. They followed that with a 4-0 drubbing of Chicago, which played most of the game with 10 men.

They followed that by tying Seattle 0-0, earning a valuable point against the MLS champs. In the week of practices before the game, Larentowicz said the team worked on recovering on defense to thwart counter-attacks.

Larentowicz said the team’s ability to hold onto either three points or one points is a reflection of the aggressive style that Martino wants and the talent on the team.

“In the last few weeks we’ve played last year’s best and played one of the top teams in New York and hung in,” he said. “Now we are getting a better sense and that sense is we can play with anybody.”

Martino is just as aggressive with his tactics as he wants his players to be on the field.

In last week’s 2-2 draw with Toronto, Atlanta United was behind 2-1 at halftime. Toronto’s midfielders and forwards Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore created numerous scoring chances in the first half. Martino made a subtle tactical adjustment to remove some of the space in the defense by changing the back four to a back five. Atlanta United scored within the opening two minutes of the second half to tie the score at 2-2, and the five-man back line blunted Toronto’s offense for the remainder of the game.

Atlanta United even had a chance to earn the win if not for a world-class save by Toronto goalkeeper Alexander Bono on a shot by Miguel Almiron in the 69th minute.

“That Martino makes a tactical change should surprise nobody,” Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas said. “Some of the reasons people were excited about him is because of doing things like that. He is adjusting to the league and finding the league requires adjustment.”

Lalas worked the inaugural game against New York and the tie at Seattle. He has seen the education the team experienced in just four weeks.

He said Atlanta United got “MLS’ed” by New York, which used its experience to rally with two goals in the final 16 minutes. The first came on a corner kick. The second came in the run of play.

“They felt like they were kicking themselves because they were more savvy than they showed up in the moment, and they quickly rectified it,” Lalas said.

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