Atlanta United’s offense better, but remains under construction

Atlanta United midfielder Marcelino Moreno (10) kicks the ball against the Columbus Crew Saturday, July 24, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/For the AJC)

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Atlanta United midfielder Marcelino Moreno (10) kicks the ball against the Columbus Crew Saturday, July 24, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/For the AJC)

When Atlanta United put season-highs in shots and shots on goal against Cincinnati on Wednesday, the caveat was yeah, but Cincy’s defense is the worst in MLS.

The Five Stripes followed that with a season-high in chances created against Columbus on Saturday with a caveat of yeah, but they didn’t score in a 1-0 loss at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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The good sign is that while the team has now gone 10 games without a win, the past two games under interim manager Rob Valentino are providing hope that this franchise is, if you squint and are in a good mood, starting to more closely resemble the high-scoring one from 2017 and ‘18.

“I think Rob (Valentino) wants us to play very attacking minded football,” fullback Brooks Lennon said. “When we create a turnover, he wants the first pass to be going forward and try and create an attack. We are going continue that mentality in each and every game going forward. You saw against Cincinnati in the end, we created tons of chances but were unfortunate to tie that game. It’s good to see us creating chances and guys looking to shoot on goal. I think the numbers speak for themselves.”

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Looking at those numbers: the team put 22 shots, nine on goal at Cincinnati in a 1-1 draw. Its previous season high was six, set against Philadelphia on June 20.

It tied a season high with nine chances created on Saturday. The previous high came in that same game against Philadelphia. From those on Saturday, it created 19 shots, putting five on goal.

If not for excellent goalkeeper by Cincinnati’s Kenneth Vermeer and Columbus’ Eloy Room, Atlanta United should have the important six points because it would have had numerous goals. And, to show how its bumpy season is going, Vermeer wasn’t as tough in allowing three goals against Nashville on Saturday.

It’s that kind of season for Atlanta United so far. And there is really just one solution.

“I think just putting it in the net,” Valentino said. “As simple as that sounds, they were there. Sometimes in this game and at this level, the margin of error or the margin of chance or not chance is so small.”

There are two players who may hold Atlanta United’s goals, and its season, in their hands: Marcelino Moreno and Josef Martinez.

Moreno joined the club last season after Pity Martinez was sold. He was tried mostly as an attacking midfielder by then interim manager Stephen Glass. Moreno played as well as could be expected for someone in a new country, a new league and a new team who was dropped right into the lineup.

Credit: MLS

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Columbus scored a 1-0 win over Atlanta United with a set-piece foal in the 64th minute on a headed goal by centerback Jonathan Mensah.

Credit: MLS

Gabriel Heinze played Moreno mostly on the wing, where he was less effective. With Ezequiel Barco playing with Argentina in the Olympics, Valentino has moved Moreno back centrally and asked for him to take the ball and drive at defenders. In the past two games, Moreno has created seven chances.

“I don’t want to landlock him,” Valentino said. “I don’t want to put him in shackles and say like you’ve got to stay in these positions. There are things we like to talk about like where can we control space, both in defending and attacking. Can he go and control space in the middle of the pitch and higher up or is he going to work more of the half-spaces? He’s a really talented player.”

The issue for Valentino, and whomever is hired next by president Darren Eales and vice president Carlos Bocanegra is that Martinez the only bona fide goal-scorer on the 30-man roster. His absence because of injury last year is the biggest reason why the team missed the playoffs. It’s part of the reason why the team is far below the playoff line because it has scored just 14 goals in its 15 games. Martinez has two.

Saturday was his first start since May 29 against Nashville. He missed the next games because he was with Venezuela competing in the Copa America. He texted positive for COVID while in Brazil in the tournament and had to quarantine. After he returned, Heinze elected to leave him out of one game. Martinez returned under Valentino as a sub against Cincinnati. The offense perked up when Martinez came on because he draws defenders toward him.

Opponents know Martinez is the team’s primary threat so he receives a lot of attention. He took two shots on Saturday, putting neither on goal. Instead, he became more of a playmaker by creating three chances for teammates.

But if Atlanta United is going to start scoring goals, and earning positive results to start climbing back up the table, it will likely come down to Martinez.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” centerback Anton Walkes said of Martinez. “He’s not back where he was. That’s a high level to get back to. But we are going to make sure that we help him get there. We know that once he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s an important player and one of the best in the league.”

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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 vs. Columbus, 3:30 p.m., ABC

July 30 at Orlando, 8 p.m., ESPN

Aug. 4 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

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

Aug. 15 vs. LAFC, 4 p.m. ESPN

Aug. 18 vs. Toronto, 7 p.m. BSSO/BSSE

Aug. 21 at D.C. United, 8 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Aug. 28 vs. Nashville, 3:30 p.m., Univision

Sept. 10 vs. Orlando, 7 p.m., FS1

Sept. 15 vs. Cincinnati, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept. 18 vs. D.C. United, 3:30 p.m., Univision

Sept. 25 at Philadelphia,3:30 p.m., Univision

Sept. 29 vs. Inter Miami, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Oct. 2 at Montreal, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

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