Atlanta United turns to 2019 themes to address 2020 issues

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Five Stripes will play Cincinnati at 9 a.m. Thursday

Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer fell back on some familiar themes. On Tuesday, he addressed areas his team must fix to improve its chances of defeating Cincinnati on Thursday and keeping alive its hope of advancing to the knockout rounds in the MLS tournament in Orlando.

The first was “lock on.” It’s how de Boer and his staff describe what their players must do when they turn over the ball. It’s a phrase they used often last year, particularly early in the season when the team struggled. They must lock on to the opponent and press with urgency in an attempt to either stop them from moving up the field or to win the ball back.

The team failed to do so on the New York Red Bulls’ only goal in last week’s 1-0 loss in the opening game. New York needed only four passes to flip the field to produce the deciding shot.

“It’s our DNA,” de Boer said.

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There are a few reasons why the players didn’t “lock on” as well as they should.

First, de Boer said an inability to scrimmage other opponents and work on what to do after turnovers was a factor. MLS rules for competing in the tournament forbade playing other teams because the league was trying to limit potential exposure to COVID-19 during the suspension of the season.

“If we do that, we aren’t having those types of problems,” he said. “Maybe not as many as we had against Red Bulls.”

Midfielder Emerson Hyndman and defender Franco Escobar said there were times that the brain recognized the situation, but the body didn’t react as quickly as it should.

They said that’s a result of not playing a game the past four months, which affects instincts and execution.

Lastly were the muggy conditions, which can sap energy.

“Sometimes, the first game back is hard to get that awareness,” Hyndman said. “It’s part of how we pay normally. We all agreed we can do that much better. Hopefully we can provide that next game.”

On offense, de Boer said the team must get its playmakers move involved.

While Pity Martinez played well, creating a team-high four chances, de Boer said they need to get Matheus Rossetto on the ball in more dangerous spots. He finished with two chances created in 72 minutes.

“How we can liberate our best players with movement,” de Boer said. “That was also a point that we can do better. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way.”

Lastly, he said the team needs to execute its crosses better. The team pumped in 15 from open play. Only one resulted in a shot on goal, and it came in the final seconds.

“All those things we want to see different on Thursday morning,” de Boer said.

If they don’t, the team’s hope of winning its third major trophy could be over with a game in the group stage remaining. It’s not what the team envisioned when it entered the MLS bubble on the Fourth of July. Red Bulls and Columbus lead the group with three points each. They will play each other Thursday night. The top two teams from each of the six groups advance. The four remaining teams with the most points will also advance. The Five Stripes should advance as one of the top teams if it can secure at least four points from its next two games. But beating Cincinnati seems a much easier task than Columbus, which hammered its rivals 4-0 in their first match.

“We know we have to get a good result tomorrow, or we could be out of the tournament,” Escobar said.

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