Atlanta United will need to score, move forward without some of its best players

Atlanta United midfielder Dax McCarty dribbles during the first half of the match against the Charlotte FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadiumon June 2, 2024. (Photo by  Madelaina Polk/Atlanta United)

Credit: Madelaina Polk/Atlanta United

Credit: Madelaina Polk/Atlanta United

Atlanta United midfielder Dax McCarty dribbles during the first half of the match against the Charlotte FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadiumon June 2, 2024. (Photo by Madelaina Polk/Atlanta United)

If Atlanta United is going to climb the Eastern Conference table and into the playoffs, it must start scoring more goals.

The team creates the fifth-most chances (188) in MLS and has the eighth-best expected goals (25.5) total, but hanging on to those for hope is a bit like hearing the Braves’ focus on exit velocity when explaining why their lack of run production isn’t a concern. It’s either a hit or it’s not. It’s either a goal or it’s not. Clinging to expected goals as a measure of performance won’t push a team up the table from 13th place, which is where Atlanta United and its 22 goals are after 16 matches.

To that end, interim manager Rob Valentino, promoted after Gonzalo Pineda was fired last week, has spent time during the past few training sessions building the confidence of his attacking players and working on creating transition moments, where the team has looked at its best this season. Seeing the ball go into the net during practice could lead to more goals during matches, starting Saturday against Houston at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“Think it’s going to simple ideas, setting them up in the best way of where we feel like their strengths can be, whether it’s certain positions, or movements and things like that,” Valentino said. “I think we were trying to give them those ideas, and let them know you’ve got confidence to make mistakes. I want them to be careful with this, to make mistakes, but I want them to make new mistakes. If we’re making the same mistakes, we have issues.”

The team’s inability to score explains in part why it has only one win in its past 11 league matches. It has scored one goal or fewer in seven of those matches.

Tactically, Valentino has worked to help the attacking players work off each other so that they can create 2-on-1, or 3-on-2 situations. Should they lose the ball, they can use their closeness to press, win back the ball, and turn that into another transition moment. Not every counterattack has to start near one end line and go 110-plus yards the other way.

Valentino said they may also mix in playing a lower line that possibly can entice the opponent to move higher up the field and create space behind in which Atlanta United can attack if it can create a turnover.

“I won’t marry myself to one answer here,” he said.

Mentally, well, that’s a longer story.

Dax McCarty said he thinks the team’s issues at home, where it is winless in its past five, go back to the Philadelphia match April 14. The Five Stripes were ahead 2-0 and in control. The Union scored one. The Union scored again. The Union scored a third that was called back because of an offside call.

McCarty said the team went into shock.

“You’re thinking OK, we go from 2-0, we should be winning this game easily against the top team in the league, to then like we’re hanging on for dear life here,” he said. “And then it’s just been a snowball since then. We haven’t been able to get things right at home. And so you just have to have a short memory, right?”

But the team hasn’t had a short memory.

McCarty said the players have been at times afraid to make mistakes. Including the match against the Union, Atlanta United scored 12 goals in its first seven matches. It followed with 10 goals in its next nine. It’s been too much about “keep the ball just for the sake of frustrating the opponent” instead of “let’s make sure we frustrate the opponents, still be good in possession, but let’s try to have more of a purpose and a more of an end product in what we do.”

McCarty said it’s not about fixing the tactics. He said the players are among those responsible for what happened to Pineda. He said at some times things were too static, possibly affected by players not wanting to make mistakes. So, it’s about fixing the instincts and creating freedom.

“I think we have really, really good attacking players and not just good attacking players, but athletic, fast, strong athletic players who actually put fear into opposition back lines,” he said. “We were just a little bit too robotic in the way the positioning of our wingers and our strikers, and I’d love to see them have a little bit more freedom of movement. And I think that’s what Rob has done. He’s come in and said, ‘I want you guys out wide taking guys on one by one. But if the space isn’t there, come inside and find the game, be a little bit more fluid in how we move.’”

Atlanta United forward Giorgos Giakoumakis (7) waves to fans after a 4-1 win against the New England Revolution at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on March 9, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

There is one more issue: Who is going to score?

Atlanta United likely will soon complete the sale of leading scorer Giorgos Giakoumakis (five goals) to Cruz Azul. The team hasn’t fielded any legitimate offers for Thiago Almada, its most creative player and second-leading scorer (four goals), but he almost certainly will leave the team to play for Argentina in the Olympics. Saba Lobjanidze, tied as the second-leading scorer, is with Georgia competing in the European Championship.

Atlanta United will have to craft ways to craft goals without some of its best players, either for the remainder of the season or at least for parts of the remaining 18 league matches.

“It’s going to be hard for sure,” captain Brad Guzan said. “But it’s what we signed up for, it’s part of it. There’s no time for excuses. There’s no time for finding a way out, it’s only forward. We’ve got to do that with the guys that are here that are on the field. We believe in each other. We believe in each other as a group. It’s a busy summer in terms of international football for different competitions, different reasons. The guys that are here, we’re going to give everything.”

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Atlanta United’s 2024 schedule

Feb. 24 Columbus 1, Atlanta United 0

March 9 Atlanta United 4, New England 1

March 17 Atlanta United 2, Orlando 0

March 23 Toronto 2, Atlanta United 0

March 31 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 0

April 6 Atlanta United 1, NYCFC 1

April 14 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 2

April 20 Cincinnati 2, Atlanta United 1

April 27 Atlanta United 1, Chicago 1

May 4 Minnesota 2, Atlanta United 1

May 7 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte Independence 0 in U.S. Open Cup

May 11 D.C. United 3, Atlanta United 2

May 15 Cincinnati 1, Atlanta United 0

May 18 Atlanta United 1, Nashville 1

May 21 Atlanta United 0 (5), Charleston 0 (4) in U.S. Open Cup

May 25 LAFC 1, Atlanta United 0

May 29 Atlanta United 3, Miami 1

June 2 Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 2

June 15 vs. Houston, 7:30 p.m.

June 19 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 22 at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m.

June 29 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

July 3 at New England, 7:30 p.m.

July 6 at Real Salt Lake, 9:30 p.m.

July 9 vs. Indy Eleven in U.S. Open Cup

July 13 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 17 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

July 20 vs. Columbus, 7:30 p.m.

July 26 vs. D.C. United in Leagues Cup, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 4 vs. Santos Laguna in Leagues Cup, 4 p.m.

Aug. 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 31 at Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. Nashville, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 18 vs. Miami, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 28 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 2 vs. Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 at Orlando, 6 p.m.