Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

© Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

5 Five Stripes Thoughts: Atlanta United desperately needs to find its home mojo

June 22, 2018 - 9:19 am

It was around 3 p.m. on April 28, 2018 when I declared on the radio that “you can try, but you just can’t beat the Five Stripes” in Mercedes Benz Stadium.  Kevin Kratz had just converted another free kick goal, deflating a Montreal Impact club that was attempting (nearly successfully) to bunker their way to a road victory.

Since that point, Atlanta United has played four games at Mercedes Benz Stadium and has lost three of them, most recently Wednesday night’s 1-0 loss to Chicago Fire in the Round of 16 of the US Open Cup.  While not an MLS match, it continued a trend that may have actually started in mid-April.  Atlanta United has simply not been sharp at home over the last two months, even in their victory over Philadelphia Union.  Here are my five thoughts on Wednesday’s defeat, and the week ahead for Atlanta United:

1. This was a missed opportunity.  Atlanta United may never have an easier path to a trophy than they had in the US Open Cup.  All they needed to do was get a home win over Chicago Fire, get another home win over a USL Club (Louisville City), and then beat either Philadelphia or Orlando, two clubs they have already dominated this season.  Had they done that, they likely would have had the chance to host the US Open Cup final, probably in front of 72,000 supporters at Mercedes Benz Stadium.  They had a path to the final paved with Golden Bricks, but they could not get it done against Chicago.  Credit the Fire for playing a largely mistake-free 90 minutes.  But Atlanta United could have and should have done better against a club that they beat on the road (with full control of the match) on May 5.

2. Something was off on Wednesday.  I don’t know exactly what it was, but after scrolling through the tweets after the game Wednesday night, I think the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Doug Roberson had the best word at halftime: “chemistry.”  The chemistry was off all night in the final third.  Passes were not connecting, and chances were being wasted.  Part of this may be attributed to players not used to working together (Williams, Almiron, Vasquez and Villalba is an unusual lineup), but I’m sure those four have trained together for long stretches.  This wasn’t an indictment of Atlanta United’s formation.  The 4-2-3-1 made sense Wednesday night and probably should have worked.  But Atlanta United did not do a good job of converting the opportunities they created.

3. There were major positives Wednesday, even with the loss.  There is no doubt now that Tito Villalba is fully fit and over his various injuries, after he took a positive step forward last Wednesday with his goal in Columbus.  Villabla looks sharp and fresh and has made a big case for a start Sunday against Portland, which may force Tata Martino to remain in the 4-2-3-1.  Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was rock solid at center back wearing the captain’s armband on Wednesday, and absolutely should go to the All Star game in August.  And once again, Mikey Ambrose and Miles Robinson look fully comfortable playing in MLS matches.  Even Andrew Carleton’s late flash was encouraging, although his introduction into the match may have come too late.

4. I have a real issue with the way Ezequiel Barco is being officiated.  It’s not that referees are overlooking Barco being fouled.  In fact, he draws more fouls per minutes played than anyone else in MLS.  But I’m growing more concerned about the harshness of fouls that he is drawing without players being shown yellow cards.  Quite frankly, Bastian Schweinsteiger could have been red carded for his clattering tackle on Barco as he started a second half counter attack.  The referee barely admonished him.  Too many times now, I’ve seen card-worthy fouls on Barco draw barely a whistle.  At age 19, Barco has the potential to be one of the faces of MLS, and deserves a certain degree of protection from unsporting behavior.  If Schweinsteiger and David Villa can expect a certain degree of leeway from the referee, so should Barco.  Otherwise if will be open season for players to kick Barco with little fear of punishment.

5. We will learn a lot about Atlanta United on Sunday.  It’s amazing how a 1-0 loss in an non-MLS match can change the way we look at a club.  Because Atlanta United had been in excellent form since their loss to Red Bulls.  They were 3-0-2, with five road points, in the five matches leading to their loss to Chicago.  Atlanta United simply has to stop dropping points at home.  The margin for error is still way too narrow between Atlanta United and clubs like Sporting Kansas City, NYCFC and FC Dallas if the Five Stripes have aspirations to win the Supporters’ Shield.  The Portland Timbers will provide a great test.  They are a club that has not lost in two months and are unbeaten in their last eight MLS matches, after rounding into form slowly thanks to a long season-opening road trip.  A sharp performance at the Benz, something we really haven’t seen since the drubbing of LAFC on April 7, will go a long way to calming our fears.​