Diagnosing some of Atlanta United’s issues

Atlanta United's Brooks Lennon attempts a move around Columbus players during 1-0 loss Tuesday, July 21, 2020, in the MLS tournament in Orlando, Fla.
Atlanta United's Brooks Lennon attempts a move around Columbus players during 1-0 loss Tuesday, July 21, 2020, in the MLS tournament in Orlando, Fla.

Credit: MLS

Credit: MLS

Team has lost four consecutive games and hasn't scored in 395 minutes

Training and communicating are two of the possible keys to change Atlanta United from toothless to tough before its next game.

The Five Stripes were beaten by Columbus 1-0 on Tuesday in a game the team had to win to keep alive its hope of advancing out of the group stages and into the knockout rounds of the MLS tournament in Orlando.

Instead of energy and bravery, Atlanta United started meekly against the Crew and didn’t show any fire until the second half. By then, Columbus had a lead that proved to be enough.

Atlanta United’s losing streak is now at a team-record four games and its scoreless streak has reached 395 minutes, which is boggling considering the amount of money the team has spent on attacking players.

“In these three games and can even go back to the Club America game, that’s not who we are as a club,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “That’s not what we are about as a team. There’s got to be change. There’s got to be some sort of change on the field. There’s got to be communication, conversations, but then there has to be a response to that. It can’t just be talk talk talk, and then we get on the field and do the same thing we’ve been doing. This didn’t just happen in one game. This has happened for four games.”

Those conversations likely will include the team’s formation, trying to figure out how to strengthen the spine of the team, finding an on-field leader, and how to get the team’s remaining two Designated Players, Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco, into dangerous spots.

The 3-4-3 formation that manager Frank de Boer said best fits the personnel has produced zero goals. The players don’t appear comfortable, which also was the case when de Boer tried it to start the 2019 season, his first in charge. The team eventually switched to a 4-1-4-1, and then 4-3-3 and then a 3-5-2. Those worked and the team won the U.S. Open Cup, Campeones Cup and advanced to the finals of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

ExploreFrank de Boer promises to turn team around

Whatever the formation, even if de Boer stays with the same, will require better play from the three centerbacks as well as the two central midfielders. Miles Robinson and Franco Escobar played together last year as centerbacks, and Fernando Meza, the third, came from LIGA MX where he was a starter. But the three were pulled apart consistently in the tournament. They were punished once by the Red Bulls. Columbus failed to punish them when it created an opportunity early in the first half.

Emerson Hyndman and Mo Adams started together in central midfield in two of the three games in Orlando. The chemistry isn’t evident. Hyndman is more of a bridge midfielder, similar but not the same as Darlington Nagbe, or attacking midfielder. Last year, Hyndman typically had Nagbe and Jeff Larentowicz or Eric Remedi behind him. De Boer didn’t start either Tuesday, though both did enter in the second half. Adams, who failed to track Youness Mokhtar’s late run, which led to the deciding goal Tuesday, seldom played last year.

“We set the bar so high the last couple of years,” Guzan said. “So to go through what we are going through right now, you can talk about experienced players. There’s also inexperienced players on the field. It’s the role of the experienced ones to help the younger guys along. It’s the role of the younger guys to pick up information quickly and learn on the job so to speak. We have to get better. There is a huge level of frustration and disappointment. This isn’t what Atlanta United is about.”

While Guzan is a leader and one of the team’s captain, de Boer needs to find someone on the field who can communicate to the players what he wants. He said he couldn’t make changes necessary to affect the first half against Columbus. Atlanta United tried to press, but Columbus changed its tactics and easily worked around what de Boer was trying to do. He said the team was incapable of making the changes. It was a curious statement because de Boer has repeatedly discussed how the team can switch formations within games and has worked on dealing with different scenarios. But when it needed to do so, it didn’t or couldn’t.

Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan signals his teammates during 1-0 loss to Columbus Tuesday, July 21, 2020, in the MLS tournament in Orlando, Fla. The loss eliminated Atlanta United from competition.
Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan signals his teammates during 1-0 loss to Columbus Tuesday, July 21, 2020, in the MLS tournament in Orlando, Fla. The loss eliminated Atlanta United from competition.

Credit: Atlanta United

Credit: Atlanta United

“Maybe when we have a guy like Jeff Larentowicz on the pitch. Yeah, he’s a guy that can put guys in the right spot,” said de Boer, who made the decision not to start Larentowicz. “Right now we are not able to do that. I’m shouting from the side, but it’s still difficult.”

The last problem, perhaps the most important, is how to spark the offense. After playing well the final one-third of last season and the first games this season, Martinez has reverted back to the player who attempts low-percentage passes and shots and frequently turns over the ball. Barco, who scored two goals in the season’s first two games months ago, wins fouls and that’s about it. The two combined for two shots on goal Tuesday. Barco’s was his only shot on goal in the tournament in 187 minutes. Martinez had four in 263 minutes.

Adam Jahn, the only true striker available because J.J. Williams was unavailable after earning a red card in the previous game against Cincinnati, started but was subbed off at halftime. Jahn, a big target, received no service from the wingbacks, Brooks Lennon and George Bello, or the midfielders, in the first half.

As “#DeBoerOut” popped out on Twitter during the Columbus game, de Boer, sat stoically on the sideline watching the game. Afterward, when asked what he would say to those asking him to resign or to be fired by team Vice President Carlos Bocanengra or President Darren Eales, he said he is hurting as much as anyone, but is confident he can get the team turned around.

“I think we have to improve, that’s clear,” de Boer said. “We are going to do that. We have to do that together. When we get back to Marietta, we will try to get everybody back on their feet again and get some confidence. We have enough quality in the team.”

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