Atlanta United, a team that once seemed capable of scoring for fun, suddenly finds itself struggling to put the ball into the net as it hits an important part of the season.
Following Wednesday’s 1-0 loss at D.C. United, which was only the third time this season the Five Stripes have been shutout, the team has scored three goals in its past four games. Once the highest-scoring team in the league, Atlanta United and its 41 goals have been passed in the Eastern Conference by Toronto (52), NYCFC (47), and Chicago (46), with Montreal (41) and Columbus (40) poised to overtake them this weekend if the team struggles at Philadelphia on Saturday.
There are reasons for that the deluge has turned into a recent trickle. Josef Martinez sat out the three games before D.C. United with a bruised right foot. Atlanta United scored a total of three goals in those three games and was 1-0-2. The goals it did score came late in each of the games.
But Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said his team hasn’t been as precise near the goal as it once was. He said it continues to play well in the other two-thirds of the field. He said the team was good in the 1-1 draw with Orlando City, but that wasn’t the case in three of the other past four games.
“We are lacking some imagination in the final third and creating some chances with the possession that we had (against D.C. United),” he said.
Martino said there’s not much he can do in training to sharpen that precision.
“The final third is really a place where players have to solve it by themselves during the game with imagination,” he said.
The scoring has dried up in several areas.
Martinez has nine goals in 10 appearances. He scored two in the win against San Jose on July 4 before sitting out the win against Orlando City, draw against Orlando City, and draw against Sporting KC.
Miguel Almiron has eight goals, but hasn’t scored in the past eight games, a stretch dating to the 3-1 win against Columbus at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Yamil Asad has 10 assists and two goals, the last coming April 22 in the 3-1 win at Real Salt Lake.
Julian Gressel has three goals, the last coming June 21 in the 2-1 loss at D.C. United.
“We aren’t worried about it,” Almiron said. “It’s true that we’ve been lacking goals, but we think they will come.”
Atlanta United on Saturday will face Philadelphia, which Martino said scores easily. The Union have scored 36 goals and feature C.J. Sapong (12 goals) and Chris Pontius, who Atlanta United centerback Michael Parkhurst said are very good in the air and at knocking down balls for dangerous flick-ons to other players. The team also has good holding midfielders in Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin.
“They are a direct team,” Parkhurst said. “They are just opportunistic. They score off loose balls and Sapong battling in the box. They are a dangerous team.”
Atlanta United anticipates Philadelphia will try to play the same way as D.C. United successfully did: compact banks of four who will try to eliminate any seams and prevent Atlanta United from passing through the lines to take advantage of its speed. Fullback Greg Garza described what he thinks the Union will do as “D.C. United 2.0.”
“I think they are going to defend us like all teams do,” Almiron said. “They have good players, and we will have to be ready for that.”
Atlanta United is in seventh in the East. With three points Saturday, depending upon the other results, it could move into a tie for fifth place heading into the international break. The team will next play Sept. 10 against Dallas in the opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“It’s not a must-win, but the mentality of the group is we want to bounce back from that poor performance, that disappointment, and we think if we have a good performance we will win the game,” Parkhurst said.