Through its 13 games played and 16 points earned, two things are clear about Atlanta United.
First, it will match moments of brilliance with crucial lapses of concentration, particularly when defending set pieces, that are frequently punished by opponents. That is why its record against the better teams in MLS is poor and why it has only one win in six road games.
Second, it is a team (4-5-4) that for all of its skill is still mentally fragile. When something goes poorly during games, it has a tendency to struggle for the next few minutes.
It’s easy to understand why.
The team has had at least 18 players suffer contact or non-contact injuries this season, including season-ending injuries to starting goalkeeper Brad Guzan (Achilles), backup goalkeeper Dylan Castanheira (Achilles), starting centerback Miles Robinson (Achilles) and starting defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso (ACL). Fullback Ronald Hernandez likely will miss the rest of the season after suffering an MCL injury against Columbus, which was the team’s last game before it entered this two-week international break. Additionally, Josef Martinez, whose production typically directly influences the team’s results, missed seven games because he needed arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. The team won one of those games.
It’s hard to be mentally consistent and physically productive on the field when the spine of the formation has been ripped out.
Manager Gonzalo Pineda has done a credible job piecing together a starting 11 each game to cover for the injuries. He has been able to select the same starting 11 in consecutive games just twice. It’s hard to build chemistry and confidence when there can’t be consistency in the lineup.
Here is what is working and what needs to improve in the team’s remaining 21 games:
What is working
The South American midfield. Marcelino Moreno, Thiago Almada and Luiz Araujo have combined to score seven of the team’s 20 goals and nine of its 14 assists. The production has increased the more they have played together in the past five games. A hamstring injury to Araujo in the first half of the first game and the plan to ease Almada into the lineup prevented the trio from starting together in the first eight games. Each player has shown bits of individual brilliance. They are now learning how to play together within Pineda’s system and tactics with Moreno on the left, Almada as the attacking midfielder and Araujo on the right. They interchange positions during games.
The central midfield. Pineda likes the pairing of Matheus Rossetto and Franco Ibarra in the middle of the 4-2-3-1 formation. Really, it came from necessity because of injuries to Santiago Sosa and Emerson Hyndman’s recovery from last year’s ACL surgery. Sosa and Hyndman should be fully healthy for the next game, which will give Pineda options. Hyndman is very good at quickly moving the ball forward. Pineda said the data they track during training sessions shows that Hyndman is very productive. Rossetto has improved a great deal in that area. He already has 46 progressive passes this season. He had only 47 last season.
The wingbacks. Brooks Lennon is third in MLS in key passes (39) and has scored two goals. Andrew Gutman, before he suffered a quad injury against Nashville that will keep him out the next 8-12 weeks, was a dynamo up and down the left side. Caleb Wiley, if healthy, likely will slide into Gutman’s place. Wiley, who is 17 years old, has tremendous potential.
What needs to improve
Striker production. Ronaldo Cisneros seemed like he was going to be the answer when Martinez underwent arthroscopic surgery in early April. Cisneros’ hat trick against Chicago on May 7 was an example of his potential. He scored just once in the next four games. Dom Dwyer has come off the bench to score in the past two games. Martinez, who has two goals in six appearances this season, is also back, going 45 minutes against Columbus. He and Pineda have said they were going to spend the international break building up his fitness so that he can start. The team needs someone to consistently produce at the position.
Centerbacks. Because of the season-ending injury to Robinson and injuries sustained by George Campbell, Pineda has been forced to use a pairing of Alan Franco and Alex De John, who was considered a depth piece before the season, as the starters. De John has performed well but isn’t as fast or as athletic as Robinson. As was the case last season, Franco is prone to at least one impactful mistake a game, which undoes the good work he does the rest of the time. Campbell is healthy and training. It is likely that he will be paired with Franco. Campbell also isn’t Robinson, but is faster and more athletic than either De John or Franco. His inclusion in the 11 should help solidify the defense.
Defending set pieces. Of the 20 goals allowed by the team, eight have come directly from set pieces (corner kicks or free kicks) or in the second phase of defending a set piece when the opponent wins a cleared ball. That’s not good. Pineda and the players have said the issue is a consistent lapse in concentration, such as in the first minute of the game against Columbus when Jonathan Mensah got away from his defender for an easy headed goal. Giving up goals on set pieces is a proven way to turn three points into one or none.
Results against good teams. Atlanta United has played five games against teams above the seven-team playoff lines in the Eastern and Western conferences. It hasn’t won any of them. It is 0-3-2 against Montreal (two games), Miami, Cincinnati and Nashville. Last season, the team defeated just one team that qualified for the playoffs. Many players have said one of the team’s goals is to host a playoff game. To do that, it must finish as at least the fourth seed. To accomplish that, it must start producing results against the better teams, and it is going to get a lot of opportunities. Of its 21 remaining games, 13 are against teams currently in the 14-team playoff pool.
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Atlanta United’s 2022 MLS schedule
Feb. 27 Atlanta United 3, Sporting KC 1
March 5 Colorado 3, Atlanta United 0
March 13 Atlanta United 2, Charlotte 1
March 19 Atlanta United 3, Montreal 3
April 2 Atlanta United 1, D.C. United 0
April 10 Charlotte 1, Atlanta United 0
April 16 Atlanta United 0, Cincinnati 0
April 24 Miami 2, Atlanta United 1
April 30 Montreal 2, Atlanta United 1
May 7 Atlanta United 4, Chicago 1
May 15 Atlanta United 2, New England 2
May 21 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2
May 28 Columbus 2, Atlanta United 1
June 19 vs. Miami, 3 p.m., ESPN2
June 25 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
June 30 at New York Red Bulls, 8 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
July 3 at NYCFC, 5 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
July 9 vs. Austin, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
July 13 vs. Real Salt Lake, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
July 17 vs. Orlando, 3 p.m., ABC
July 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 9:30 p.m., FS1
July 30 at Chicago, 5 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Aug. 6 vs. Seattle, 3 p.m., ABC
Aug. 13 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m. BSSO/BSSE
Aug. 17 vs. New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Aug. 21 at Columbus, 5:30 p.m., FS1
Aug. 28 vs. D.C. United, 4 p.m., UNIV
Aug. 31 at Philadelphia, 7 p.m., FS1
Sept. 4 at Portland, 5:30 p.m., FOX
Sept. 10 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Sept. 14 at Orlando, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Sept. 17 vs. Philadelphia, 3:30 p.m., UniMas
Oct. 1 at New England, 1 p.m., UniMas
Oct. 9 vs. NYCFC, TBD, BSSO/BSSE