Updated: Jul 28
What did Atlanta United do this go around that destroyed Portland's defense that didn't happen all the times Atlanta has been totally stumped by a cynical low block? Well for one having a WORLD CLASS attacking midfielder makes everything easier. Almada was able to find great passes and has the skill and confidence to move the ball around in the tight spaces in between Portland's defensive and midfield lines. But a large part of what made the game so successful for Atlanta was our willingness to play long diagonals. This allowed our players to get behind their defense and ideally that results in a one-on-one with the goalkeeper but the worst-case scenario makes Portland have to rush back to try to cover which creates gaps in their defense as they are unorganized when rushing back. This allowed Atlanta to utterly dominate the game and truly father a team for the first time in a few years. And this dominant win came despite two major defensive fails, one of which was luckily ruled out for offsides--it feels weird to say but thank you, Ted Unkel.
It is definitely nice to have a player like Almada who individually raises the quality of the team by a good bit. He is calm under pressure, can see passes very few else can, is great with the ball at his feet, and can shoot like nobody's business. This is a lot of what led to his stellar 4 goal contribution game. This is highlighted beautifully by his assist for Caleb Wiley. He has to get the ball and get past two defenders at pace and then see a ridiculous pass through for Wiley to score one-on-one.
Then to add to his collection of ridiculous free-kick goals Almada goes and scores a banger to put Atlanta up 2-0. There isn't much tactically to break down, but it still is worth sharing whenever possible because of just how crazy the connection and finish are.
But Almada doesn't stop there. Unfortunately, this effort didn't lead to a goal but is still worth showing.
The ball falls to him at the top of the box and this is what is crazy until you watch him play the ball the play looks like it fell apart, defenders are stepping up to press him and everyone seems to be marked and is just walking back. And then he plays a perfectly timed ball to Brooks Lennon on the wing.
From there Lennon then crosses it back into the box. To Portland's credit, their keeper does well to push it out of the path of Tank.
But the ball still falls for Amar Sejdic whose acrobatic effort, unfortunately, goes just wide.
Back to more successful plays, Almada has yet another ridiculous pass that had to be probably 40 yards. It hits Araujo mid-stride who is able to control beautifully, get around his man, and finish confidently to the far post.
Lastly, to round out an epic performance the World Cup champion receives the ball under pressure and with his back to the goal. But is able to spin around his defender and finish coolly into the bottom right-hand corner.
The Power of Long Balls
One of the storylines of Atlanta United's success was the sheer volume of long balls. Atlanta played an astounding 39 accurate long balls (66% success rate). These long diagonals were present in almost all of the goals. In the first goal, there were a series of mid-ranged passes which allowed Almada to play Wiley through.
The third goal, though, was a case study for long balls. Almada plays this massive switch across the field for Araujo.
Araujo then settles the ball before playing a switch of his own, a long diagonal up to Caleb Wiley on the left wing.
Caleb then dribbles into space before whipping in a beautiful cross onto Giakoumakis' head who scores his first goal for the Five Stripes.
This goal really shows the power of long balls. Portland's defense is built on having a really dense center with too many defenders to be able to pass or dribble into. But by switching the ball across the field twice the defense shifts over first to Araujo and then rushes over to press Wiley. This causes some confusion and opens up holes which Gigi exposes beautifully. Long balls are also important in the fourth goal, by the way, Almada plays a great long ball to Araujo who is able to bring the ball down and score.
Minor Defensive Faults
The game wasn't perfect, though, as Atlanta conceded twice with one being overturned because of a close VAR call that ruled striker Niezgoda to have interfered with Guzan's view of the shot while being offsides. But apart from just being annoying to not keep a clean shot the goals conceded are particularly concerning as they are similar to goals conceded in the past.
The first goal has scarily similar parallels to the goal Atlanta conceded against Bernardeschi in the Toronto game. In both goals, the defense stays roughly on the top of the box and lets the attacker, in this case, Eryk Williamson, take a touch past one defender, Franco Ibarra, before watching the attacker wind up and score past Guzan. The goals are concerning because they are so nonchalant. The defense didn't get destroyed by a clinical series of passes or a ridiculous solo run. The opposition beats one defender easily and then is allowed to tee up and shoot from 20 yards out.
Then after we got a close VAR call to go our way for once Atlanta did concede again in the 83rd minute. And this goal is also somewhat concerning because while you never want to concede the fact that Atlanta United is getting beat in the air by a 19-year-old who has played a total of 35 minutes for the Portland first team is particularly concerning. In the build up we let Portland pass it around in the middle third before they switch the ball to their right-wing on which Diego Gutierrez beats Gutman fairly easily before putting in a cross that had no right to get to Portland's striker. In this case, the blame has to fall on a failure to communicate.
The marking is supposed to be as circled, Purata on Fogaca and Miles on Ikoba, but Juanjo pushes up to the edge of the 6-yard box, a fine decision by itself, but it leaves Fogaca free so Miles pushes up to in between Fogaca and Ikoba. This means that when the ball is crossed in he isn't really marking either striker and Ikoba easily rises above him and Brooks Lennon to head the ball past Brad Guzan.
This is fine in this game because of the margin by which we were leading and eventually won but does need to improve as there is no reason that a backline with two center backs that are typically aerial dominant (Miles has a 92 percentile aerial win rate) should be conceding these types of dangerous headers.