Atlanta United must fix issues if it hopes to make MLS playoffs

Credit: Dakota Williams/Atlanta United

Credit: Dakota Williams/Atlanta United

Atlanta United has missed the playoffs once in the past five seasons.

ExploreAnother shutout loss by Atlanta United

And if it doesn’t fix its issues, which were again there for all to see in Sunday’s 2-0 loss at the L.A. Galaxy, it will likely not make the postseason in 2022.

There are three things that have been consistent with the team this season:

- Allowing early goals because of mistakes.

- Long offensive stretches without creating scoring opportunities.

- Predictable postgame commentary from manager Gonzalo Pineda (controlled most of the game, unlucky in front of goal, must create more chances).

All happened against the L.A. Galaxy, a team that had lost its previous three games while giving up nine goals.

“I feel like the whole game, or most of the games, we’ve been in control of the game and trying to attack,” Pineda said. “That attacking-minded football, you can see it in how many chances we create in every game, home or away. We’re creating a lot of chances, it’s just we’re not as clinical as we should have. But we will continue in trying to create more chances than the opponent.”

Atlanta United created eight scoring chances in the game, including just two in the first half. Josef Martinez, who played the final 45 minutes, led the team with three. It was clear that the team missed Thiago Almada in the first half. He didn’t start because Pineda chose to use three centerbacks, which eliminates one midfielder. It’s the second consecutive game that Almada hasn’t started.

Instead of Almada, Pineda has selected Marcelino Moreno and Luiz Araujo. A problem with those selections, which has become clear in the past two games, is that neither of those players are going to consistently create opportunities for teammates when they don’t have an attacking midfielder to play off of.

Moreno has created two chances in the past two games and hasn’t put a shot on goal. Araujo has created two chances in the past two games, including none against the Galaxy, and put two shots on goal. Almada wasn’t credited with creating any chances against the Galaxy, but he completed 21 passes in the opponent’s defensive third, which tied for the team lead despite him playing just 45 minutes.

“We will try to check the film and try to see if we could have done better,” Pineda said. “I think yes, individually, that Thiago was very good (Sunday night). I will check if tactically if that could have helped us also in that moment.”

If Pineda is to start Almada, he will either have to take off one of the centerbacks or one of the central midfielders, which were Amar Sejdic and Matheus Rossetto against the Galaxy. The issue with removing one of the midfielders is opponents will likely use the same 4-3-3 formation the Galaxy selected and create numerical advantages in the middle of the pitch.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of Atlanta United

Opponents haven’t needed numerical advantages too often against the Five Stripes. The Galaxy’s goal sequence started with a long pass into the middle of the pitch by Rocco Rios Novo that neither Moreno nor Rossetto attempted to win. With the wingbacks pushed up the field anticipating an attack, the Galaxy easily attacked Atlanta United’s goal to score its opener in the 10th minute. It was the eighth goal allowed by Atlanta United in the opening 15 minutes this season.

When opponents score first, tactics change. As Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan is fond of saying, goals change games.

As was the case in last week’s draw with Orlando, as soon as the Galaxy scored it went into a mid-to-low defensive block, which negated space for Ronaldo Cisneros to exploit. He was still able to get onto one pass from Sejdic and create a corner kick. Cisneros was selected ahead of Martinez because of his ability to make runs.

The other effect of opponents scoring first is it seems to put Atlanta United in a funk. Pineda again bemoaned the team’s lack of intensity in the first half.

“It seemed to me like we will not switch on and we have to wait every game until we concede a goal and then we have to go and then we’ll show a very good mentality,” he said.

Because the team has a tendency to switch off, it has yet to win two consecutive league games this season. It is 0-7-3 when the opponent scores first.

The good news for the team is though Atlanta United has played one fewer game than some teams in the Eastern Conference, it trails seventh-place Cincinnati by a manageable four points for the final playoff spot. There are four teams between the Five Stripes and that precious postseason slot. Toronto, two points behind Atlanta United, has significantly improved its roster during the transfer window and will also be in the mix.

The chase may be futile if the team doesn’t fix its issues.

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Atlanta United’s 2022 MLS schedule

Feb. 27 Atlanta United 3, Sporting KC 1

March 5 Colorado 3, Atlanta United 0

March 13 Atlanta United 2, Charlotte 1

March 19 Atlanta United 3, Montreal 3

April 2 Atlanta United 1, D.C. United 0

April 10 Charlotte 1, Atlanta United 0

April 16 Atlanta United 0, Cincinnati 0

April 24 Miami 2, Atlanta United 1

April 30 Montreal 2, Atlanta United 1

May 7 Atlanta United 4, Chicago 1

May 15 Atlanta United 2, New England 2

May 21 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

May 28 Columbus 2, Atlanta United 1

June 19 Atlanta United 2, Miami 0

June 25 Toronto 2, Atlanta United 1

June 30 New York Red Bulls 2, Atlanta United 1

July 3 Atlanta United 2, NYCFC 2

July 9 Austin 3, Atlanta United 0

July 13 Atlanta United 2, Real Salt Lake 1

July 17 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1

July 24 L.A. Galaxy 2, Atlanta United 0

July 30 at Chicago, 5 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Aug. 6 vs. Seattle, 3 p.m., ABC

Aug. 13 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m. BSSO/BSSE

Aug. 17 vs. New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Aug. 21 at Columbus, 5:30 p.m., FS1

Aug. 28 vs. D.C. United, 4 p.m., UNIV

Aug. 31 at Philadelphia, 7 p.m., FS1

Sept. 4 at Portland, 5:30 p.m., FOX

Sept. 10 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept. 14 at Orlando, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept. 17 vs. Philadelphia, 3:30 p.m., UniMas

Oct. 1 at New England, 1 p.m., UniMas