Atlanta United’s offense shows signs of life in win against Chicago

Chicago Fire goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth (1) is not able to stop the goal by Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco (8) during the first half Saturday, April 24, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Chicago Fire goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth (1) is not able to stop the goal by Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco (8) during the first half Saturday, April 24, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Atlanta United put just one of its five shots on goal in the first half of Saturday’s win against Chicago at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The offense looked a lot like it did in last week’s 0-0 draw at Orlando. And a lot like it did most of last season.

But in the second half against Chicago, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Five Stripes put six of its 13 shots on goal. Two of those shots went in to complete a 3-1 victory. It was the team’s first — and manager Gabriel Heinze’s first — win in MLS play this season.

The performance on offense was completely different than the team’s first three games in which it scored just two goals: one from a penalty kick and one in the final seconds of a game in which it only needed a draw.

But no tactical adjustment was made Saturday. An attitude adjustment was the difference in the two halves.

“I think we just settled into the game a little more,” Mulraney said.

The three goals marked the first time the team scored at least that many since its 4-0 win at D.C. United on Oct. 3 last season. Its 18 shots were the most it has had since Toronto in October 2019.

Credit: MLS

Atlanta United won its home opener of the 2021 season, 3-1 against Chicago at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Credit: MLS

Though it was Mulraney who said there were no tactical changes, he described Heinze as a tactical genius.

“... He’s like too smart for me,” Mulraney said. “It’s taken me so long to adapt to how tactically good he is.”

Boiling it down, Mulraney said Heinze wants a lot of Atlanta United players in the penalty box when it is attacking. There were a few examples of that in the first half when crosses were going across the box, either over the heads of several Atlanta United players or being cleared away by Chicago defenders, and then coming back again across the 18-yard area.

Though there was no reward there was proof of an idea.

Wait for it.

Then came the team’s final two goals.

On the second goal, scored as own goal by Chicago’s Johan Kappelhof, Lisandro Lopez and Mulraney made hard runs to the near and far posts before they arrowed toward the center, drawing defenders with them. Marcelino Moreno put in a hard cross toward that area. No Chicago player could deal with it. The ball bounced off goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth, then Kappelhof, and may have been touched by Mulraney before it rolled into the goal to give Atlanta United a 2-1 lead in the 66th minute.

The second example was the final goal. Jurgen Damm took the ball toward the endline, cut inside and then passed to Mulraney in the penalty box. After spinning around and creating space, he uncorked a shot that Shuttleworth parried to his right. Hyndman, already in the penalty box because Heinze wants his players to flood that area, was the quickest to react. He shot the loose ball into the goal for a 3-1 lead.

“I knew the chap was coming,” Mulraney said. “I saw the chap coming. I quickly glanced, and I seen the boy so I was going to hit it with my right, and it ended up going onto my left, and I just shimmied, and it went off the cuff, and I didn’t think, and it just happened.”

The team’s tenacity in the second half was reminiscent of its first three seasons in MLS when it had a goal difference of plus-71, compared to last year’s minus-7.

“We’ve been working on things in training, we are doing that with the intent of implementing those things into the games,” Barco said. “In games like this, it just demonstrates everything we have been working on.”

There are still points to watch:

-Moreno has yet to look comfortable playing on the left wing. His cross/goal was his highlight. He created that singular chance and completed less than 67% of his passes.

-Mulraney is getting used to playing on the right. He was used mostly on the left last season. He said he likes playing on the right because it gives him more options. He is right-footed.

-Josef Martinez is still finding his way after surgery last year to repair a torn ACL in his right knee. Saturday was the first in which he looked like the striker who was named MLS MVP in the team’s title-winning 2018 season. He won aerial duels. He took on defenders.

“I think Josef needs that time to come back,” Heinze said. “He’s making a tremendous effort. I see him very committed to the group. And what he needs is time to be better and he will have that with me.”

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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 at New England, 7 p.m., CW

May 9 at Inter Miami, 1 p.m., ABC

May 15 vs. Montreal, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

May 23 at Seattle, 4:30 p.m., Fox

May 29 vs. Nashville, 3:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

June 20 vs. Philadelphia, 2 p.m., ESPN

June 23 at NYCFC (at Red Bull Arena), TBD, BSSO/BSSE

June 27 vs. New York Red Bulls, 3:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

July 3 at Chicago, 8 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

July 8 at Nashville, 8:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

July 17 vs. New England, 5 p.m., ESPN

July 21 at Cincinnati, 7 p.m., FS1

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, B7 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, 7:30 p.m., FS1

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

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