Images from the match between Atlanta United and Houston Dynamo at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (Photo by Karl L. Moore/Atlanta United)
Photo: Karl L. Moore/Karl L. Moore/Atlanta United
Photo: Karl L. Moore/Karl L. Moore/Atlanta United

Will Atlanta United keep using the 3-5-2?

Though his team defeated Houston 5-0 and looked more lively than it has in weeks, Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer wouldn’t commit to keeping the 3-5-2 formation deployed Wednesday.

It was the first time this season the team started in the formation, one it used during its MLS Cup-winning run last season. It was a formation born of necessity Wednesday because de Boer had no healthy fullback. In fact, the team is so depleted it had only five players on the bench. And, the team was helped by a red card in the sixth minute on Houston’s Alberth Elis.

But ... five goals.

“You take everything into consideration, that’s normal,” de Boer said. “We started really offensive, and this is also what United want and the fans. We will see in the future. We’ve also played some good games in 4-3-3.”

Atlanta United looked confident, as if the return to the formation was like becoming reacquainted with a long-lost friend. It took 23 shots, completed 90 percent of its passes and, as expected, dominated possession with more than 70 percent of the ball.

“I felt like everyone was comfortable,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe said. “We went over it just briefly the day before the game, yesterday, and being down a defender kind of made us play three in the back, and we needed a response from the last game, so I think the response and playing that formation helped us.”

Though there was more space because Houston had only 10 players, Atlanta United’s passing was quick among the three compact centerbacks, five midfielders that were spread across every inch the width of the field, and the interchanging strikers.

“They way we were playing today. I think it helped us,” Brandon Vazquez said. “I think we had a lot of opportunities because of that, and having a lot of players attacking plus having everybody come back to defend. I think that was really good today.”

And Atlanta United took advantage of the space.

Very few times did a player get the ball, stand over it and then dribble. Runs made by the players were sharp, and seldom did two players move into the same space, or did someone not make a run. Nagbe’s opening goal was  the result of a run. Vazquez’s goal came from Josef Martinez making a run to the near post, and Vazquez running to the mouth of the goal. Martinez’s goals came from him moving into space. Gressel’s capper came from a lung-bursting sprint of 30 yards to catch up to a deflection and it came when the team was already comfortably ahead 4-0 with just a few minutes remaining. Even Michael Parkhurst, who needs a passport to get into the opponent penalty box, made surprising runs to surprise the defense.

The effort, decisions and concentration seemed greater than they were against other teams that have bunkered against Atlanta United, including when Red Bulls do so after being reduced to 10 men in New Jersey earlier this season. Atlanta United lost that game 1-0.

“I think this formation helped also against 10 men,” de Boer said. “You have to make unselfish runs, sometimes, you get it, and sometimes, you don’t, but you will distract the opponent. Two times, we made runs, Brandon Vazquez came free on the 10 position and had two shots. This is what you want to see, lots of movement and the guy on the ball decide who gets the ball. It may be that the guy who makes the first run normally doesn’t get it because everyone is focusing on him, so it’s better to give it to the second or third man or fourth man.”

De Boer keeps saying that George Bello is close to returning, but it seems unlikely that any of Atlanta United’s remaining injured fullbacks will be ready before Sunday’s game against D.C. United. So, the 3-5-2 may return for at least one more game.

Should de Boer continue to use the formation beyond Sunday, it will be fascinating to see how he incorporates Pity Martinez and Eric Remedi, who came off the bench, Justin Meram, who was an unused sub, Franco Escobar, who couldn’t play because of yellow-card accumulation, and Ezequiel Barco and Hector Villalba, who are working back from injuries.

Escobar shined in the 3-5-2 last season as a right wingback, the position that Gressel played Wednesday in scoring one goal and notching two assists. Barco and Villalba were used as subs by previous manager Gerardo Martino last year when the 3-5-2 was used in the playoffs. It would seem unlikely that Barco, based upon his form before he left for the U20 World Cup in May, will be a sub. Pity Martinez would seem likely to be used as the second striker, which was the role Vazquez played well Wednesday.

“Slowly everybody’s coming back.,” de Boer said. “... I can make those decisions in what formation we can play that we still have the best possibility to win against each opponent.”

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