Analysis: What’s gone wrong with Atlanta United?

MLS pundits see issues with Atlanta United’s play, disjointed at times
Atlanta United midfielder Dax McCarty controls the ball during the second half against the New England Revolution at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, March 9, 2024, in Atlanta. Atlanta United won 4-1. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Atlanta United midfielder Dax McCarty controls the ball during the second half against the New England Revolution at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, March 9, 2024, in Atlanta. Atlanta United won 4-1. (Jason Getz /

Two MLS pundits who have watched Atlanta United play many times this season see a team still has potential but that is disjointed in many places. The Five Stripes are winless in their past six league matches and are facing a very difficult May that continues at Cincinnati on Wednesday and at Nashville on Saturday.

Taylor Twellman and Sacha Kljestan, who combined to play more than 500 matches in MLS and who now analyze games for Apple, gave different reasons why Atlanta United is struggling. Kljestan pointed out the team is missing several starters, notably centerbacks Stian Gregersen and Derrick Williams, and winger Xande Silva, which can affect tactics.

Both Kljestan and Twellman said another reason is the team is too easy to play through. Its press is disjointed. Both referenced how easily D.C. United played through Atlanta United in last week’s 3-2 loss, particularly on the visitor’s first goal. Tristan Muyumba moved to press high up the field. No one joined him. D.C. United easily passed its way down the field.

The first thing that Atlanta United needs to do to start climbing back up the Eastern Conference is to be more difficult to break down.

“If that means that they just need to sit back a little bit and that leaves space in the midfield a little bit more, then so be it,” Kljestan said. “I think they want to be a little bit more of a team that can step out and press but it does not look good when they do that.”

Twellman said he wouldn’t mind seeing the team switch to a 3-5-2 with Thiago Almada or Saba Lobjanidze playing as the second striker beside Giorgos Giakoumakis. That formation would make Atlanta United more difficult to break down defensively and provide space up the field for Almada, Lobjanidze and Giakoumakis to attack, Twellman said.

Kljestan said even if Atlanta United doesn’t want to play in a low block, it can play deeper, which would make it more difficult to play though.

Atlanta United manager Gonzalo Pineda said Monday that his team will not bunker and counter. He said he doesn’t believe that provides the highest probability to win. Atlanta United scored the second-most goals (66) last season and allowed the seventh-most (53). It has scored 16 and allowed 14 through 11 matches this season. The team has created the fourth-most shot-creating actions in the league this season.

Whatever formation they play, Twellman said it’s important that everyone contributes.

“I always felt like the best way to bring it together is have a team-type of win,” Twellman said. “And what I mean by that is a game where collectively it may not have been the prettiest but it was collectively the most in sync as a team. So let’s say they go to Cincinnati and they say, ‘You know what? We are going to get a result on the road.’ Is it going to be sitting in, is it going to be high pressing and get after them and 4-3, 3-2, or win 1-nil on a set piece? But get a win, no matter how, you get a win.”

Another part of Atlanta United’s issues during this streak is its inability to maintain focus after scoring. Four times this season an opponent has scored within seven minutes of Atlanta United scoring. It happened twice against D.C. United. Kljestan said when he was at the Red Bulls, after they would score, the players would look at each other and say “five minutes,” signaling that for the next 300 seconds they would play with a discipline and fury that would make them difficult to break down.

Kljestan and Twellman independently offered the same player when asked who could help Atlanta United get out of its run: Dax McCarty.

McCarty, who signed with the team as a free agent before the season, has started one league game for Atlanta United. He has been used mostly as a backup to midfielders Tristan Muyumba or Bartosz Slisz. McCarty has more than 500 appearances in MLS. Twellman said the team needs someone who knows MLS on the field, just as Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst were in the team’s past.

“Dax becomes a valuable piece, ‘hey, let’s bring someone that knows kind of what the hell’s going on,’” Taylor said.

Kljestan said if not McCarty, who would put teammates in good positions because of his ability to play simply, then Muyumba needs to be more disciplined while on defense and when attacking.

“Muyumba has a lot of quality, but I think he has to recognize that Almada is the guy that runs the show, so he needs to take less touches, and give the ball more to Almada in the final third,” Kljestan said. “That’s why I think the game has always looked better when Dax McCarty comes into the game, because he just settles things down, organizes and plays the ball simply, quickly, he gives the next guy time and space on the ball.”

Other players mentioned that could be more impactful included Lobjanidze and Caleb Wiley, who hasn’t been able to be more involved in the attack because the wingers ahead of him have had trouble producing.

Twellman said he still believes that Atlanta United’s roster is the best it’s had since 2019. Kljestan said at the beginning of the season he thought the team could challenge for the East. Now. ...

“Nothing more than fifth best in the East, unless they can find a way to be better defensively,” Kljestan said.

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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 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

May 18 at Nashville, 1:30 p.m.

May 25 vs. LAFC, 7:30 p.m.

May 29 at Miami, 7:30 p.m.

June 2 vs Charlotte, 4:30 p.m., FOX

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 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.