After needing two world-class goals in the final seconds to pull out its win Saturday against San Jose, Atlanta United is hoping the path to three points is a little smoother against Toronto on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The team did many things well against the Earthquakes, according to manager Gonzalo Pineda. But there are things that the MLS team has been working on in training this week, including better shot selection, defensive shape even when it has possession and attacking a defense in a low block.
“It’s always a work in progress,” Pineda said. “And we are trying to send the right message to the players on understanding that.”
Toronto (0-1-0) likely will be the next in a long line of opponents who have come to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and set up a defensive shape with as many as 10 players in their half of the field. It’s the same tactic, using either four defenders and five midfielders, or five defenders and four midfielders in two lines that San Jose used, according to Quakes manager Luchi Gonzalez.
“No matter who we play, I think when they come to the Benz, they kind of try to sit in, and we end up having the majority of the ball,” centerback Miles Robinson said. “But it’s just how we can break them down when they sit in, or if they press, how we can break them down.”
The Quakes almost got away with it until Thiago Almada scored two goals in the final minutes after San Jose took a 1-0 lead on a counterattack in the first half.
Beating that low block will require better patterns, movements and movements into spaces, Pineda said. The team may be aided by the inclusion of Designated Player Giorgos Giakoumakis, whose visa was approved Thursday. The striker trained with the team for the first time Friday.
Atlanta United’s players tried to unlock the box with 17 shots from at least 18 yards. Only two (Almada’s goals) were on goal.
Pineda said he was pleased that the team dominated possession at 60.5%, which he said isn’t easy to do.
When the team didn’t have the ball, it needs to do a better job in its defensive transitions. If Toronto does play a low block, its attacks will come from counters similar to what San Jose executed on its goal.
Pineda said the team has worked on keeping a defensive shape when it has the ball to ensure that gaps are covered between the centerbacks or behind the fullbacks when they are pushed up the field. Pineda describes it as “active defending,” a term coined when he was an assistant in Seattle. He said he wishes he could think of a more accurate description.
“That’s what we’ve been working on, how we can be better at progressing the ball and then, if we lose the ball, how we can be protected by that shape and that structure, he said.
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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule
Feb. 25 Atlanta United 2, San Jose Earthquakes 1
March 4 vs. Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m.
March 11 at Charlotte FC, noon, Fox
March 18 vs. Portland Timbers, 7:30 p.m.
March 25 at Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.
April 1 vs. New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.
April 8 at New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.
April 15 at Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m.
April 23 vs. Chicago Fire FC, 4:30 p.m., FS1
April 29 at Nashville SC, 1:30 p.m., Fox
May 6 at Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.
May 13 vs. Charlotte FC, 7:30 p.m.
May 17 vs. Colorado Rapids, 7:30 p.m.
May 20 at Chicago Fire FC, 8:30 p.m.
May 27 at Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m.
May 31 vs. New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m., FS1
June 3 at Los Angeles FC, 10:30 p.m.
June 10 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.
June 21 vs. New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.
June 24 at New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.
July 2 vs. Philadelphia Union, 4 p.m., Fox
July 8 at CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.
July 12 at New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m.
July 15 vs. Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m., FS1
Aug. 20 at Seattle Sounders, 10:30 p.m.
Aug. 26 vs. Nashville SC, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 30 vs. FC Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 2 at FC Dallas, 8:30 p.m.
Sept. 16 vs. Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 20 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 23 vs. CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 4 at Philadelphia Union, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 7 vs. Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 21 at FC Cincinnati, TBA
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