Miguel Almiron

Katlyn Stevens / Atlanta United

5 Thoughts on the Five Stripes: Atlanta United runs aground in Houston

Mike Conti
March 04, 2018 - 7:05 pm

I said at the end of the first half Saturday that Atlanta United had never looked worse in their young history than they did in the first 45 minutes of their match against Houston Dynamo.  Statistically, this was true.  Atlanta United had never conceded four goals in a match, let alone in one half.  And things didn’t get much better from there in a 4-0 defeat.  

Still, there’s a long way to go.  Atlanta United really didn’t catch fire until the second half of last season, and I would be shocked if they did not look significantly better in their next two matches, which are being played at home.  Here are my five thoughts on Saturday’s match:

1. The Barco loss was way more significant than we imagined.  For casual fans, indulge me for a moment with an NFL comparison:  Imagine that four days before the Falcons open their season, Matt Ryan gets hurt.  Dan Quinn decides to start Mohammad Sanu at quarterback (he’s played there before).  But with Sanu now at quarterback, Quinn thinks Devonta Freeman would be better off playing Sanu’s spot at wide receiver.  Now, with Freeman at receiver, Quinn opts to start Taylor Gabriel at running back.  Oh, by the way, Alex Mack left the team three weeks before the season, so now you’re starting Ty Sambrailo at center.  

I know this is a sloppy comparison geared towards fans who don’t follow soccer that closely, but I’m trying to demonstrate the domino effect on the starting XI caused by Barco’s absence.  Tata Martino had to deploy several starters at unconventional positions, including Miguel Almiron on the wing and Julien Gressell at the Number 10, an extremely unusual spot for him.  On top of this, Jeff Larentowicz had to start on the back line, pulling him out of a defensive midfield position where Atlanta United desperately needs him.  And Michael Parkhurst, who played a full 90 minutes in the exhibition finale, was not included in the starting lineup and didn’t come in to the match until Leandro Gonzalez Pirez got injured.

Martino now has more time to figure out a plan for the next few weeks, and may have even gotten a good look at some possibilities in Houston.  I don’t expect we’ll see the same starting XI against DC United. 

Along with the lineup shifts, I have to think that Barco’s absence created a psychological blow for Atlanta United.  They have been planning for weeks (if not longer) to feature him attacking down the left wing.  And with him being such a transformative player offensively, I cannot help but think that the news of his injury deflated his teammates.  Fortunately it does not look like “Life without Barco” will last long, but Atlanta United has to come up with a better plan, and quickly.

2. What we saw in the preseason may not have been an aberration.  One thing that I noticed in the Nashville match and a few times in Charleston is that the technical precision was lacking with Atlanta United as they tried to string passes together and generate scoring opportunities.  I chalked this up to just early season lack of chemistry and players simply trying to get fit.  However, Saturday in Houston we saw quite a few first touch errors and a real lack of connecting passes in the attacking third.  Again, this is something that will hopefully change with another week of training to build chemistry.

3. I thought Chris McCann was pretty solid.  Based on the reaction I saw on Twitter, this will probably be a controversial opinion, but I can’t really remember anything specific that McCann did wrong on Saturday.  None of Houston’s four goals were on him.  I thought he was active and I don’t remember him making a ton of mistakes.  I feel like a lot of his critics Saturday evening failed to identify anything specific about him.

4. The problems are fixable.  And it all starts with not conceding in the first five minutes.  Momentum and emotion are impossible to quantify, which is why I don’t like doing it.  But it really felt like Atlanta United panicked after giving up such an early goal, and even as they generated some good first half scoring opportunities, they showed a real lack of composure in dealing with Houston counter-attacks.  The three yellow cards Atlanta United took in the first half may have been another symptom of this.  I said after the match Saturday that Atlanta United really needs the support of its home crowd Sunday against DC United.  They could not have picked a better, more important time to have a home match.

5. Houston Dynamo deserves more support.  Jason Longshore told me he was shocked to see a prediction of Houston finishing tenth in the West.  After seeing them in person Saturday, there is no doubt that Houston Dynamo is going to be a problem for MLS in 2018, and it all starts with Alberth Elis, whose unique blend of size and speed made him basically unmarkable for Atlanta United.  They have a very good manager in Wilmer Cabrera, who has loaded his roster with young players from South America.  That’s why it was disheartening for me to see BBVA Compass Stadium with thousands of empty seats Saturday, and at least five hundred seats occupied by Atlanta United supporters.  Get a sponsor on their kits and some fans in the seats, because Houston Dynamo is a fun, wide open squad that is going to score a lot of goals.