Hard to trust in impending Atlanta United turnaround

Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada #10 passes the ball during the first half of the match against Cincinnati FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA on Saturday April 20, 2024. (Photo by Mitch Martin/Atlanta United)

Credit: Mitch Martin/Atlanta United

Credit: Mitch Martin/Atlanta United

Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada #10 passes the ball during the first half of the match against Cincinnati FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA on Saturday April 20, 2024. (Photo by Mitch Martin/Atlanta United)

It has come to this for Atlanta United.

The club, once the envy of MLS, is taking hope from a draw with a team that had fired its coach and a win in penalty kicks over a minor-league team.

When you’re closing in on two months since your last regular-season league win, you take what you can get.

Something has gone awry yet again for Atlanta United, which sits in 12th place in the 15-team Eastern Conference at 3-6-4 going into its home match Saturday against LAFC. The concentration lapses that sank them last season (as well as previous seasons) have been joined this year by a new dysfunction – fizzling offensive production, a particularly galling weakness for a club known for its goal-scoring prowess.

The Five Stripes, second in MLS in goals scored a season ago, have not scored three goals in a league game since their 3-0 win over Chicago on March 31, which also was its last win against a league opponent. In the eight-game winless streak in MLS play, they’ve been limited to one or no goals six times.

A little more than a third of the way through the season, a club that made offseason roster moves to win this season has thus far come up far short. Frustration is building, both in the stands and within the team. Something clearly is not working properly, and it might not be long before some sort of change becomes necessary.

Manager Gonzalo Pineda pointed to injuries, and it’s undoubtedly part of the equation that has added up to full-blown mediocrity. Offseason pickups Stian Gregersen and Derrick Williams, veterans added to tighten the defense, have played 39% of the available 2,340 combined minutes in the 13 league matches. Striker Giorgos Giakoumakis, tied for second-most goals in MLS last season, has missed four of the 13 and will be out again vs. LAFC. Midfielder Xande Silva, a valuable midseason acquisition last season, has missed four league games and has been limited to sub duty in five others.

There’ve been four games in which at least three of the foursome of Gregersen, Williams, Giakoumakis and Silva started. Atlanta United is 3-1 in those games. In the other nine, at least three of the four sat out or did not start. The Five Stripes are 0-5-4 in those games.

Further, star midfielder Thiago Almada left the Cincinnati game May 15 early with injury, missed the Nashville game May 18 and is uncertain for Saturday. Pineda said that he has not experienced this sort of injury toll in his coaching career.

“It’s been a great test, for sure,” he said. “Of course, you don’t expect those (injuries).”

That said, it’s more than injuries. On Thursday, veteran midfielder Dax McCarty laid the issues bare in a session with media. Categories where Atlanta United has been lacking, per McCarty – confidence, sharpness, cohesion, patience and effort.

Certainly, not having essential players on the field can destabilize a team in all those areas. But it doesn’t have to.

Atlanta United, for instance, has developed maddening expertise in giving up cheap goals, often shortly after scoring their own. That habit has continued into this season, a product of lapses in focus. And often it isn’t just one player coming unhitched.

“It’s multiple individual mistakes that then lead to a good chance for the other team that then leads to frustration,” McCarty said.

After the 1-0 loss at second-place Cincinnati, in which the difference was a soft first-half goal, frustration ran high and a players-only meeting was held after the game. McCarty called the team’s slow start in the game “unacceptable.” Goalkeeper Brad Guzan said that “we need to, like, roll our sleeves up and be frickin’ men about this.”

Those are problems that go far beyond injury that Pineda has seemed incapable of stopping throughout his tenure, which began August 2021.

In a best-case scenario for Atlanta United, the draw against Nashville SC and penalty-kicks win against United Soccer League team Charleston (in a U.S. Open Cup matchup Tuesday) actually will be catalysts.

“I think it definitely starts in training – seeing the ball hit the back of the net – but nothing builds confidence like scoring goals (in games),” McCarty said.

Maybe the Five Stripes can follow through on their professed intention to get up early on LAFC and get the Mercedes-Benz Stadium crowd going, and that can help secure a win against a team that has struggled on the road thus far this season.

“We are waiting for those couple results to bring back those emotions, those sensations of we’re a team that’s really, really powerful,” Pineda said.

But, at some point, if a team recognizes its flaws and can’t correct them, then it’s not really a team that’s really close to turning the corner and realizing its potential, but just a team that can’t win.

How close is Atlanta United to that point?

It might be fair to at least give Pineda a chance with a healthier lineup. While Giakoumakis is out Saturday, Williams (out since early April) could return next week. Silva could be back in the starting lineup Saturday. Almada is questionable for Saturday.

But the club does have a nearly two-week break after its June 2 match at Charlotte. And then there’s a month pause in late July/August for Leagues Cup, the tournament among the 47 MLS and LIGA MX (Mexican league) teams.

If president Garth Lagerwey makes a move on Pineda, those would be logical windows.

Is Atlanta United a team that’s really, really powerful or just a team that keeps losing and promising better, only to lose again?

You’d like to believe the former. Growing evidence suggests the latter.