Updated: Jul 27
With the inaugural Leagues Cup tournament drawing ever near, it is clear that current Atlanta United needs to improve if they want to have any real shot at competitiveness. Atlanta is coming off of back-to-back 2-1 losses and just doesn't look all that dangerous. Luckily for Atlanta, though, neither Inter Miami nor Cruz Azul are super dangerous right now, either. Inter Miami and Cruz Azul are both dead last in the MLS and Liga MX, respectively. In addition, Cruz Azul's lone goal in the first three matches of the season was scored off of a freekick and Miami is winless in their past 11 MLS matches--not great. Given this group, Atlanta should progress but after that it gets more challenging. If Atlanta were to come second in their group they could face Liga MX champions Pachuca in the second round of knockouts. So what does Atlanta need to improve before the tournament?
Unlocking the Wings
Atlanta has good players out wide and needs to take advantage of them to be successful. This means getting the ball out to Brooks Lennon and Caleb Wiley in the attack as they are fast outlets that have proven to be dangerous in the attack this year. But to allow them to be dangerous the through balls and balls over the top played to them have to be accurate so that they can run with the ball at their feet. The most dangerous areas for assists are on the baseline (see below) to cut the ball back into the box but to get there the winger must get past their man. The easiest way of doing this is by playing accurate balls for the wingers. When Atlanta plays a long ball to Caleb Wiley in space it is only beneficial if he can take it down in one touch. There were several balls against Orlando where Caleb Wiley was open and then the ball into him took 3 or 4 touches to control, totally negating his good position.
And they don't even always have to be balls over the top. Against Orlando, Almada played a nice ball to get Wiley through. This was a great play for Atlanta because when Almada received the pass Wiley's man came over to mark him, leaving Wiley open on the flank for an easy pass on from Almada. This is similar to Caleb Wiley's first goal against Charlotte (above) when Almada draws the defenders and, again, passes it on for the open winger.
Another easy way of generating this space by drawing a defender is a simple Give-and-go. It is one of the most basic soccer plays, one that every kid playing rec soccer knows, but it is effective. Orlando almost scored off of one in the 35th minute when Angulo is able to simply pass around Sosa and get into space at the top of the box because of a Give-and-go with Mauricio Pereira.
Looking to the defense, Atlanta United has had consistent troubles keeping the ball out of the net this season. This has been particularly frustrating as Atlanta will have a solid defense for 89 minutes but then someone will click off and not press at the edge of the box or fail to adequately mark their man and we will be punished. To be able to beat teams with real firepower like LAFC, St. Louis, Columbus, Guadalajara, Tigres, or Pachuca these defensive lapses can't happen. We also need to revisit set pieces. Earlier in the season it seemed like we had finally figured out set pieces and weren't conceding off of them a lot and were looking dangerous. Recently, though, we haven't looked all that dangerous on set pieces and have had trouble defending them. Against Orlando, we immediately lost our lead off a freekick and then very nearly conceded off of a corner in the 51st minute.
Atlanta had been struggling to impose their midfield and play style on the game even before we loaned our only consistent midfield starter to Toronto. It has become really apparent just how important Ibarra was to the team as the midfield just looks weak and we are missing the added layer of defensive cover that he provided for the back line. Pineda will need to find his preferred midfield pairing quickly if Atlanta wants to have any hopes of going deep in the Leagues Cup, and it might be Rossetto and Osvaldo Alonso. Against Orlando, he chose to start with Sosa and Sejdic but clearly wasn't ecstatic with their performances as he chose to replace them both with Rossetto and Osvaldo Alonso early in the second half. Both Sosa and Sejdic had mediocre passing stats with 77 and 78 percent completion rates, respectively. This would be acceptable if they were playing lots of long and progressive passes but they each only attempted 6 long balls, completing 9 total.
When Ozzie and Rossetto came on they had far better passing stats. Both players had over a 95 percent completion rate and had more progressive passing distance than their counterparts. This is important as it shows a desire to play the ball forward and try to generate chances. On the night Rossetto only missed 1 of 40 passes and had the second most passes into the final third (after Almada). This desire to put the ball into dangerous areas, and passing success is what Atlanta needs in the midfield. In addition, Rossetto is arguably the best dribbler of the ball as he completed 3 progressive carries for a progressive distance of 91 yards. This doesn't even mention the pair's leadership abilities as Alonso was brought to the team expressly as a veteran presence and Rossetto wore the captain's armband for parts of last season. The interesting part of the decision for Pineda, though, will be Tristan Muyumba. The French midfielder was recently signed from French 2nd-tier side Guingamp. Currently, he is yet to make an appearance for Atlanta so it will be interesting to see him compared to the rest of the midfield as MLS is a better league than the Ligue 2.