Miles continue to pile as Atlanta United’s tough stretch continues

Still tired, but feeling slightly fresher than a few days ago, Atlanta United will play its sixth game in a stretch of eight in 28 days when it takes on Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto on Friday.

The segment of the schedule is one of the toughest, if not the toughest, faced by any team in MLS this season. The trip to Utah will finish three consecutive road games that started with a 1-0 win at Vancouver, continued with a 1-0 loss at New York Red Bulls four days later, and now includes another cross-country trip. In all, the team will travel approximately 9,000 miles for just three games.

“I’d be lying if I said I felt great,” midfielder Julian Gressel said Wednesday. “I think we are still tired. It will be another tough game from a physical standpoint. Put everything into it again and recover on the weekend.”

But Atlanta United (6-4-2) has navigated the 28-day trek, which started with a 3-0 win at Sporting KC (1,300 more miles), with a 4-1-0 record and seven goals scored and one conceded. The team had five consecutive wins, with the streak starting before the glut of games, with a victory over Colorado on April 27. The streak ended with the loss in New Jersey to the Red Bulls on Sunday.

“If you told me, will you sign for that, I’d sign for that,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said.

What should be a feeling of success is slightly tempered by last week’s result in New Jersey. Atlanta United couldn’t figure out a way to defeat New York, which played the game’s final 55 minutes with 10 men after a red card was given to Tim Parker. After pressing when it had 11 men, the Red Bulls bunkered after the red card. Atlanta United couldn’t solve it. 

It’s not the first time an opponent has tried that approach. It won’t be the last. The bunkers, or when teams put as many as 10 players behind the ball in defense, negates Atlanta United’s speed and the technical ability of its players and takes advantage of its lack of height.

After giving the players Monday and Tuesday off to aid in recovery, de Boer said he thought they looked fresher than they did before the game against the Red Bulls. They used some of that energy during Wednesday’s training on how to beat a bunker.

Among the things de Boer said the team can do are short combination passes that can force defenders to move, which can open spaces. They can also put in early crosses when the opponent does come out but loses the ball in transition. Those crosses need to be put in when the defenders are 20 yards away from goal. Atlanta United kept pumping in crosses against the bunkered New York. As good a leaper as 5-foot-7 Josef Martinez is, it’s going to be difficult for him to beat taller defenders to headers when those players are ready and organized.

Atlanta United put only two shots on goal in the game.

“We have to improve that, that’s for sure,” de Boer said of beating a pack-in defense.

De Boer said he doesn’t expect Real Salt Lake (5-6-1) to bunker at home. Though he said he’d prefer to play a team that uses that tactic because it means his team will get more of the ball, Atlanta United typically plays better against teams that will try to play. 

In its past three games, all against teams that mostly bunkered, Atlanta United has scored only one goal that wasn’t a penalty kick. Its last goal from open play came 266 game minutes ago, in the 14th minute of a 1-0 win against Orlando.

“As a team our profile has changed a bit,” Gressel said. “We don’t really score four, five, six goals a game anymore. We are trying to work through it. Teams are defending very well against us.

“It’s just really a matter of all of us getting on the same page, create as many chances as possible and put away as many chances as possible.”

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