Atlanta United is scheduled to play the 17th game of a 34-game MLS schedule when it takes on LAFC in California on Wednesday.
Seems like a good time to review the first half of the team’s season.
Entering Saturday’s games, Atlanta United leads the league in goals scored (34) but is in fifth place in the East with a 6-4-6 record. It is closer in points to 15th-place Miami than it is to first-place Cincinnati because it has allowed the most goals (28) in the league. Atlanta United can consider itself unlucky. Its expected goals against is only 19.4.
Its most recent game, a 3-3 draw against New England, epitomized the team’s season. Atlanta United allowed the opening goal in less than a minute because of a mistake. It allowed another goal that could be considered not well-defended. It then rallied to score three goals, only to allow another goal that again wouldn’t be considered well-defended in the 93rd minute to drop the three points. The lapses in concentration and lack of urgency have been issues all season. Atlanta United has allowed eight goals in the 89th minute or later in matches this season.
“When I look at the calendar, 16th game in the season facing New England, who I believe is one of the best teams in the conference, I felt this a good time to assess how good we are playing, what we are missing,” manager Gonzalo Pineda said after Wednesday’s 3-3 draw at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “I think there are a lot of positives in that. Of course, conceding easy goals is one of those things we need to improve. What I think the hardest thing in football is to create chances and play offensively, so I think defensively it’s not easier, but we will try to work on that.”
As part of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s season preview in February, Doug Roberson predicted six things that will make the team’s season a success or failure. Here’s a review of those factors:
Season will be a success if:
1. It makes the playoffs.
Part of what was said: Club President Garth Lagerwey said the goal is to host a playoff game.
What has happened: After going unbeaten in its first four matches, it has three wins in its past 12 matches, 13 if including a loss to Memphis in the opening round of the U.S. Open Cup. The turning point in the first half was the 6-1 loss at Columbus. The team was missing seven players who were called up by their national teams. But the team’s confidence hasn’t looked the same since that match. It faces a very tough stretch that, if it doesn’t concentrate for 90 minutes in each match, may see it fall below the playoff line. It is five points ahead of 10th-place Montreal in the chase for the nine slots.
2. The younger players continue to improve.
Part of what was said: There’s not only Thiago Almada to consider, but the team has several younger players that it hopes will continue to improve and perhaps become coveted assets.
What has happened: Almada, with seven goals and eight assists, is a candidate for MVP, and his development is coming along so nicely that the 22-year-old may be sold this summer for an MLS-record transfer fee. Caleb Wiley, 18 years old, is the team’s next best asset. He has played well enough to earn his first call-up to the U.S. men’s national team. Franco Ibarra, 22, is developing into the defensive midfielder that the team hoped when it bought him from Argentinos Juniors before the 2021 season. Turning to the remaining Homegrowns, a group that includes Tyler Wolff, Machop Chol, Noah Cobb and Ajani Fortune, they have three starts and three goals.
3. The Designated Players produce.
Part of what was said: It needs Almada, Giorgos Giakoumakis and Luiz Araujo, the three DPs on the roster after the buyout of Josef Martinez, to combine for at least 30 goals and 30 assists this season.
What has happened: The trio is on pace for 40 goals and 21 assists. However, Araujo, who hasn’t had the impact expected with three goals and two assists, was sold to Flamengo and will leave the team following its match against the Red Bulls on June 24. It will be interesting to see what tactic Vice President Carlos Bocanegra will follow when the transfer window opens July 5. Will the team attempt to sign a like-for-like replacement right winger to replace Araujo, or if it expects it will sell Almada this summer, will it sign an attacking midfielder first and do something else, like a central midfielder with the remaining DP? Or will it do something unlikely and completely different, such as spend a lot of Allocation Money to fill those slots and hold onto the DP slots until the winter window when it has a chance to totally reshape the roster?
Season will be a failure if:
1. The injuries continue to pile up.
Part of what was said: Last season was derailed by the more than 20 injuries that kept players out of at least two consecutive games.
What has happened: It hasn’t been as bad as last season, but it hasn’t been great, either. The team has been affected by hamstring issues to Giakoumakis, which resulted in him missing two games and to be on a minutes count in three more. Atlanta United won only one of those four. In early April, goalkeeper and captain Brad Guzan sustained a torn MCL, his second major injury in two seasons, but he returned two games ago. Midfielder Amar Sejdic has missed the past few games because of a muscle injury. The club expects Ozzie Alonso, who sustained a torn ACL last season, to return possibly as soon as Wednesday’s match against LAFC.
2. The team’s shooting woes go on.
Part of what was said: Despite leading the league in shots (537) and finishing second in shots on goal (180), it finished fifth in expected goals (55.8) and tied for 11th in goals (48).
What has happened: The team ranks third (entering Saturday’s games) in shots (220), shots on goal (76) and expected goals (24.1). The team has improved its shot selection compared with last season, but it still is tied for sixth in longest average shot distance (18.6 yards), per fbref.com. The team leads the league in scoring from free kicks (12). The team leads the league despite not getting much in impactful stats from Araujo or key free-agent signing Derrick Etienne, who has yet to score.
3. The midfield fails to contribute.
Part of what was said: The team must get some sort of offensive output from its central and defensive midfielders. Amar Sejdic, Matheus Rossetto, (Santiago) Sosa and Ibarra combined for one goal and four assists. That’s not enough for the almost $2 million in salary paid.
What has happened: The quartet has combined for one goal and two assists. Ibarra has played well, but it seems that Pineda has yet to decide, or the players have yet to show him, which two are the definitive starters to support Almada and shield the centerbacks. It may be why the team will consider making a signing during the summer window.
If the team could sort its lapses in concentration, and if it makes smart signings, it has the talent and depth to compete for trophies this season.
But until it can learn to get out of its own way, the season may continue to consist of pulses of inspiration mixed with trenches of disappointment.
“I think it’s just making little plays and starts it’s everyone on the pitch,” striker Miguel Berry said. “I think it’s little decisions on the pitch, that little butterfly effect that happens and trickles down everywhere. So I think we will be good going forward, but obviously we’re going to work to eliminate their mistakes.”
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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule
Feb. 25 Atlanta United 2, San Jose Earthquakes 1
March 4 Atlanta United 1, Toronto FC 1
March 11 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte FC 0
March 18 Atlanta United 5, Portland 1
March 25 Columbus 6, Atlanta United 1
April 1 Atlanta United 1, New York Red Bulls 0
April 8 Atlanta United 1, New York City FC 1
April 15 Atlanta United 2, Toronto FC 2
April 23 Atlanta United 2, Chicago 1
April 29 Nashville SC 3, Atlanta United 1
May 6 Inter Miami CF 2, Atlanta United 1
May 13 Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 1
May 17 Atlanta United 4, Colorado 0
May 20 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 3
May 27 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1
May 31 Atlanta United 3, New England 3
June 7 or Sept. 13 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