At the MLS midpoint, a look inside Atlanta United’s season

Atlanta United is halfway through its eighth MLS season, and the best description is neither good nor bad.

The team has 17 points from 17 matches. Average.

It has scored 24 goals and allowed 23. Almost break-even.

It is 3-5-2 at home, five positive results and five negative ones. The five losses are the most in franchise history.

It is 1-3-3 on the road, six points from seven away matches, which is almost the point-per-match goal that teams strive for.

Because of its blah nature, Atlanta United heads into the season’s final 17 matches, starting Wednesday at D.C. United, with an interim manager (Rob Valentino) and many more questions than answers, most notably can the team find a positive form, go on a run, and make the playoffs?

It doesn’t seem likely. It fired its manager, Gonzalo Pineda, two weeks ago. It has one win in its past 12 league matches and just sold its leading scorer, Giorgos Giakoumakis. It is missing two starters for the next few matches because they are competing in the Euros. It will be missing three more later this summer for the Olympics and the CONCACAF Under-20 championship.

But it’s Valentino’s job to get them past the gray and into a place more lively.

“It’s about how we can progress and get better and have ideas of what we talked about fixing from there,” Valentino said. “So in that sense, it’s been game one, of Houston, and then we’ve talked about being in the present. So we kind of had that, and now we’re going to keep pushing forward.”

Here are some other things to consider about the first portion of the season:

How did Atlanta United get here? Two major reasons: Injuries and mental miscues. A brief list of starters who have missed multiple matches or significant minutes this season because of injuries: centerbacks Stian Gregersen and Derrick Williams, strikers Giorgos Giakoumakis and Jamal Thiare, wingers Xande Silva and Tyler Wolff, attacking midfielder Thiago Almada ... and on it goes into the reserves.

Pineda said he had never experienced anything in his career like the unlucky run Atlanta United is experiencing. It contributed to his firing two weeks ago.

Injuries affect teams in different ways. In Atlanta United’s case, it negatively affected the chemistry, which affected the confidence, which affected the play. Players became tentative. Tentative players either are slow to reach or will make mental mistakes. They have happened time and time again with Atlanta: Both goals scored by Houston last week. One of the goals scored by Charlotte two matches ago. The error that resulted in LAFC’s free kick four matches ago. As with the injuries, the list goes on.

Pineda couldn’t figure out how to help the players stop making those mistakes, so that was a factor, too.

Match in which the season turned. Philadelphia on April 14. Atlanta United’s season was off to a good start. It was 3-2-1, with two of those results almost throwaways because the first was at Columbus, and Atlanta United was breaking in several new starters. The second was in frigid conditions at Toronto in which five starters weren’t available because of injuries and the FIFA international window. There actually was ice on the ball during the match.

So, Atlanta United was feeling good about itself.

And then came the Union.

Atlanta United took a 2-0 lead against Philadelphia. It had control of the match ... until it didn’t. Philadelphia scored two goals, the first coming from an Atlanta United mistake. A third scored by the Union was negated because of an offside call after a review.

With the exception of one match, Atlanta United hasn’t been the same since.

Before giving up the first of those two goals, Atlanta United had outscored opponents 12-5. Since those two goals, and in the subsequent 10 matches, Atlanta United has been outscored 18-12.

Best match so far. Easily its 3-1 win against Miami on May 29. It was the closest Atlanta United has looked to its 2017-18 seasons. The team was tactically flexible, going with three centerbacks for the first time. It was aggressive on offense and defense. It played vertically. It showed no fear playing against Lionel Messi and the manager of those 2017-18 teams, Gerardo Martino.

Worst match so far. Atlanta United followed that win against Miami with a 3-2 loss to Charlotte at home June 2. Atlanta United scored first and then gave up an own goal a few minutes later on a fluke play. Atlanta United gave up two more goals, one of them when a player was unmarked in the center of the 18-yard box, before it scored its second goal. It wasn’t the worst performance, but it was the worst match because all of the momentum the team could have built dissipated in boos from the home crowd. Pineda was fired the next day.

Best player in first half. Frankly, it’s hard to pick one. The team has an average record because no players have truly stood out.

Though neither has been perfect, Saba Lobjanidze and Brad Guzan may have been the team’s best players in the first half.

Guzan’s save percentage has increased from last season, his passing has been excellent. Could he have done better against Nashville and LAFC? Sure. But he has kept Atlanta United in several matches this season. He even saved a penalty.

Lobjanidze has the most goals and assists combined (8) of anyone on the first team, Plus, he has been one of the few players who could be penciled into the starting lineup for every match. He played well enough to get a call-up to Georgia for the Euros after being overlooked for the past two qualifying matches.

Player who needs to step up in second half. It’s not that he’s not playing well, but Thiago Almada could use an impactful second half to help himself complete his desired move to a club in Europe, help the club get a better price for him, and to help it make the playoffs.

Almada has four goals and three assists. He has gone from finishing as a finalist for MVP last season to not being considered one of the better attacking midfielders in MLS.

Almada has the talent to be the second-best player in MLS, behind only his countryman Lionel Messi. It can be argued that Almada has been negatively affected more than any other player on the team by the rotating carousel of players at striker and at left wing. He’s the type of player who can create individual magic, but also he’s very good at anticipating a teammate’s moves and putting the ball in places only they can get to. It’s hard to do that when those players are in and out of the lineup.

Key match in second half. The most important match won’t even be an MLS one. It’ll be the team’s next match in the U.S. Open Cup because that will be the team’s best opportunity to win a trophy. It needs only three more wins, starting July 9 against Indy Eleven of the USL in the quarterfinals. Should Atlanta United advance, and it should because the match will be played at Kennesaw State, it will go on the road to either Dallas or Sporting KC for the semifinals. Though Atlanta United has only one road win, those opponents are two of three worst Western Conference teams.

The final is scheduled to be played Sept. 25. The remaining teams in the field are Seattle and LAFC from MLS and Sacramento Republic and New Mexico United from USL.

Any other storylines? Of course.

The team wants to sign another striker to replace Giakoumakis during the coming transfer window (July 18-Aug. 14).

Almada continues to express his desire to play in Europe, though there are still no reported offers.

If fullback Caleb Wiley is selected to play for the U.S. in the Olympics, a good performance in France could result in an offer from a club in Europe.

Lastly, and of most importance, the club’s search for its fifth manager is ongoing. It likely won’t wrap up anytime soon.

For more content about Atlanta United

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Atlanta United’s 2024 schedule

Feb. 24 Columbus 1, Atlanta United 0

March 9 Atlanta United 4, New England 1

March 17 Atlanta United 2, Orlando 0

March 23 Toronto 2, Atlanta United 0

March 31 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 0

April 6 Atlanta United 1, NYCFC 1

April 14 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 2

April 20 Cincinnati 2, Atlanta United 1

April 27 Atlanta United 1, Chicago 1

May 4 Minnesota 2, Atlanta United 1

May 7 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte Independence 0 in U.S. Open Cup

May 11 D.C. United 3, Atlanta United 2

May 15 Cincinnati 1, Atlanta United 0

May 18 Atlanta United 1, Nashville 1

May 21 Atlanta United 0 (5), Charleston 0 (4) in U.S. Open Cup

May 25 LAFC 1, Atlanta United 0

May 29 Atlanta United 3, Miami 1

June 2 Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 2

June 15 Atlanta United 2, Houston 2

June 19 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 22 at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m.

June 29 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

July 3 at New England, 7:30 p.m.

July 6 at Real Salt Lake, 9:30 p.m.

July 9 vs. Indy Eleven in U.S. Open Cup

July 13 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 17 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

July 20 vs. Columbus, 7:30 p.m.

July 26 vs. D.C. United in Leagues Cup, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 4 vs. Santos Laguna in Leagues Cup, 4 p.m.

Aug. 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 31 at Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. Nashville, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 18 vs. Miami, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 28 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 2 vs. Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 at Orlando, 6 p.m.