Postseason Preview: Atlanta United FC / by Harrison Crow

@harrison_crow

We joke about it. Atlanta has become the Marcia Brady of Major League Soccer and while that’s annoying to most all of us, it’s also not undeserved. This talented team has not only assembled a rare grouping of talent but they’ve been able to build upon their first season and grow to become a giant in this league.

While the narratives are often what they are this is a good opportunity to put into context what Atlanta has truly accomplished and what they are at their bones. A really really good team that has few flaws and has managed to minimize their opponents ability to expose those flaws.

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Head coach, Tata Martino, is a talented man manager but he couples that with also being one of the best tacticians in the league. He’s been extremely creative with how he’s leveraged his team’s talent while still keeping it grounded in what it does best, eviscerating the opposing team through quick transitions.

The book over the second half of the season has largely centered around preventing those counter attacks from occurring and forcing Atlanta to play in their opponents half while having a large chunk of possession. Teams are then taking advantage of the space vacated by the full/wing backs and exposing the center back duo whose primary attributes aren’t speed.

While Atlanta has some holes to their tactical approach to the game (and really, what team doesn’t?) Martino has largely hidden those issues by using a multiple unique methods tailored to suit his opponents.

Team Statistics

Possession: 53.1%  
xPassing For: 263.4 (6th in MLS)
xPassing Against: 87.8 (9th in MLS)
xGoals For (Regular Play):  44.8 (1st in MLS)
xGoals Against (Regular Play): 26.5 (2nd in MLS)
xGoalDifference (Regular Play): 14.6 (1st in MLS)

Top expected goals for (Open Play): Josef Martinez, 27.5 xG (1st in MLS)
Top expected goals assisted: Miguel Almiron, 10.1 xA (2nd in MLS)
Top expected buildup: Miguel Almiron, 30.1 (2nd in MLS)
Best xPasser: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, 59.9 (19th in MLS)

Season in Review

The season itself has been an awesome sophomore showing by Darren Eales, Tata Martino and the rest of the organization. The expectations were perhaps higher for Atlanta than there have ever been for an organization in their second season in North America. Win the championship? Win multiple trophies Win multiple trophies and turn a profitt in the transfer market?

Thus far, they’ve fallen short in winning a trophy but they’ve not only been able to acquire big names but also turnover a few too. For all the names they added this off-season (Darlington Nagbe and Ezequiel Barco... Eric Remedi in the middle of the season too) they also lost a few names too (Yamil Asad, Carlos Carmona and Anton Walkes).

Despite not having a Supporters Shield or winning the US Open Cup they still tied the former record of 69 points in a season. Which, again, is amazing. What they’ve accomplished as a club deserves recognition and a decade from now we’re still going to remember this club as one that was both ahead of its time in how it orchestrated talent and how they dominated their opponents.

In regards to how they’ve orchestrated the talented roster that they have. We all know they have the ability to spend, and they’ve mostly spent pretty wisely, but they’ve also done so while effectively growing their young core. Young players like George Bello, Andrew Carlton, Miles Robinson, Brandon Vasquez and even Paul Christensen have all stepped up in their limited opportunities, while Julian Gressel built upon his rookie season and became a force down the right side of the midfield and out of the back.

Tata Martino leaned upon Franco Escobar, Barco and Remedi to play big minutes despite being relatively new and unknowns within Major League Soccer while depending on veterans Michael Parkhurst, Chris McCann and Jeff Larentowicz to continue to play critical roles. He even leveraged subs like Kevin Kratz, who can be specialized set piece taker late in games.

This team itself is well rounded and position for position better or with comparable talent at just about any position with any other team in the league. Yet the team itself is built upon both Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez who equally deserve to be in the discussion for the league MVP. Martinez scored 31 goals, breaking the all-time record of goals in a season, while Almiron has played equal parts creator and scorer while playing the primary ball facilitator.

Playoff and First Round Outlook

It’s possible that Atlanta lines-up against one of three teams in a home and away series: Columbus Crew SC (5th seed), DC United (4th seed) or New York City FC (3rd seed) come next week.

Regardless of whom they play they’re going to have go stretches of the game at home in possession and they’re going to have to break teams down. That’s not to say that they can’t, it’s just not been their forte and they’ve shown some vulnerability defensively when they get stretched.

All three of those teams have the ability to punish their opponents on the counter while both Columbus and New York have the pieces and figures within the attack to help stifle Atlanta on the counter presenting challenges.

Why Atlanta Won’t Make MLS Cup

Atlanta has a lot going on off the field. The stories range from Barco and Brandon Vasquez to Miguel Almiron to the English Premier League to Tata Martino leaving at the end of the season. The team is fraught with drama and distractions while having a young core and if that young core, super talented as it is, lose focus in the playoffs the run could end as quickly as it starts.

Add all of that to the fact that if they advance to the Conference Final it’s probable they’re going to have to face a Red Bull team that has caused a fair bit of trouble to the team over their first two years. A trip to the final is anything but a gimme at this stage.

Why Atlanta Will Make MLS Cup

Atlanta has the best two players in the league surrounded by one of the most talented teams yet seen in Major League Soccer. Their youth, their experience, the talent that is just now hitting it’s prime. There may not be another team that can go one for one down the entire length of this roster. When they get going, there are few if any that can stop them.

They will be hurdles, but this team is talented enough to leap over what’s ahead and ruthlessly dispatch the opposing team for their first Major League Soccer Finals visit and perhaps even title too.