Atlanta United has six games to jump-start its offense

Credit: MLS

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Atlanta United (10-9-9) remains stuck on 39 points and dropped from sixth place to eighth, outside of the seven-team field for the playoffs.

Credit: MLS

After Atlanta United defeated D.C. United 3-2 four games ago, its manager, Hernan Losada, said that the Five Stripes could compete for the MLS Cup.

Three games later, the team has scored just two goals and lost two of those games, including Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Montreal. With that loss, the team again dropped below the playoff line into eighth place with 39 points. With just one tough game remaining among its final six, Atlanta United should earn enough points to make the playoffs.

To increase the probability of the postseason for the fourth time in five seasons, Atlanta United has got to figure out how to solve packed defenses like it faced against Miami and Montreal, how to possibly produce without Josef Martinez on the field for all of the next 540 minutes, be more clinical in its finishing and how to keep things simple.

“We are creating enough chances,” manager Gonzalo Pineda said. “Obviously there are moments in the season, like when we scored 10 goals in three games, nobody said anything about that (limitation of roster). Just because we haven’t scored many goals, we are now talking about this. The main part for me is always creating more and better chances. For me is then just probabilities that we will score more.”

In its past three games, Atlanta United created 26 chances, took 24 shots and put 12 on goal. Two of the opponents are now above the playoff line. Martinez started two of the three. It had a combined total of 3.0 expected goals, according to fbref.com and mlssoccer.com. Two of those games were on the road.

In the previous three, all wins, it created 38 chances, took 49 shots and put 20 on goal. It scored 10 goals. Two of the three opponents are above the playoff line. Martinez started two of three. It had a combined total of expected goals of 6.6, according to fbref.com. All three games were at home.

“That happens when there’s really good teams in this league,” said Jake Mulraney, who scored his first goal this season on Saturday. “I feel like sometimes you’re really on it, and then sometimes you just need to grind it and get wins. Me personally, I don’t care if it’s 1-0 or it’s 4-0, if we’re getting wins that’s the main thing.”

Atlanta United has no cushion in the standings. It is going to need to get wins. To do that, it needs goals.

The team will have two weeks to better figure out how to break the opponents’ lines. Fullback Brooks Lennon said doing so can be as simple as moving the ball from side to side, quickly switching the field and putting more players into the box to receive crosses.

“There were multiple times when I got the ball, or when Jake got the ball wide, there were dangerous crosses in the box, but there was no one that took a chance and got on the end of something,” Lennon said.

Martinez, who leads the team with 10 goals, was often the lone player in the box against Montreal, but he struggled. After failing to take a shot despite having two good chances, he was subbed out at halftime because of what Pineda described as an issue with his hamstring that needs to be evaluated. The team won’t play until it goes to Toronto on Oct. 16 so Martinez will have time to rest and recover. Pineda had already said a few times that he needs to manage Martinez’s minutes to keep him on the field as often as possible.

Atlanta United scored without Martinez against Montreal. But not having him can lead to identity issues.

“I think, at times when he’s not on the field we get away from our game plan a little bit and we look for those creative players to have some sort of a miraculous play,” fullback Brooks Lennon said. “Whereas I think we need to be more simple, know our role. Everyone on Atlanta United is quality. Every single player is good, we just need to trust each other a little more.”

The team, as noted by Pineda and Lennon, has quality. Its attacking quartet of Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, Marcelino Moreno and Luiz Araujo is among the most talented in the league. Lennon and George Bello are tireless wingers. The midfield of Santiago and Matheus Rossetto is young but is showing its potential. The centerbacks are deep. Other than Alan Franco’s two errors that led to Montreal’s goals, is solid in helping goalkeeper Brad Guzan post eighth shutouts this season.

“... I agree that we do need to put our chances away,” Mulraney said. “I think in the first half we had a few, but that’s football. Just have to focus on the next six games, six huge games. That’s huge now. It’s so tight at the moment for the race for the playoffs. We’re definitely right up there. Tonight, obviously, doesn’t help a lot. But I feel like we’ve definitely still got a huge chance at making playoffs.”

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Atlanta United’s 2021 MLS schedule

April 17 Atlanta United 0, Orlando 0

April 24 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 1

May 1 New England 2, Atlanta United 1

May 9 Atlanta United 1, Inter Miami 1,

May 15 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0

May 23 Atlanta United 1, Seattle 1

May 29 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

June 20 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 2

June 23 NYCFC 1, Atlanta United 0

June 27 Atlanta United 0, New York Red Bulls 0

July 3 Chicago 3, Atlanta United 0

July 8 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

July 17 New England 1, Atlanta United 0

July 21 Atlanta United 1, Cincinnati 1

July 24 Columbus 1, Atlanta United 0

July 30 Orlando 3, Atlanta United 2

Aug. 4 Atlanta United 2, Montreal 2

Aug. 7 Atlanta United 3, Columbus 2

Aug. 15 Atlanta United 1, LAFC 0

Aug. 18 Atlanta United 1, Toronto

Aug. 21 Atlanta United 2, D.C. United 1

Aug. 28 Nashville 2, Atlanta United 0

Sept. 10 Atlanta United 3, Orlando 0

Sept. 15 Atlanta United 4, Cincinnati 0

Sept. 18 Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 2

Sept. 25 Philadelphia 1, Atlanta United 0

Sept. 29 Atlanta United 1, Inter Miami 0

Oct. 2 Montreal 2, Atlanta United 1

Oct. 16 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Oct. 20 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Oct. 27 vs. Inter Miami, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Oct. 30 vs. Toronto, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Nov. 3 at New York Red Bulls, TBD, BSSO/BSSE

Nov. 7 at Cincinnati, 3:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE