Mar 11, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United fans participate in the supporters march before the match against the D.C. United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
When Atlanta United FC players entered the locker room Sunday before taking on D.C. United, there was a board in the room with one word written on it – commitment.
Gerardo “Tata” Martino wanted to see how his team reacted to that. After a lousy performance at Houston, the Five Stripes came out Sunday clicking on all cylinders, running past the Black-and-Red for a 3-1 victory at home in Atlanta.
“That (commitment) was important, and it was important and interesting to see the response that we got from the team because we knew that was going to be important coming off the game against Houston where we made a lot of mistakes,” Martino said through a translator. “… (All of Houston’s goals) last week came from individual mistakes so we wanted to see the guys play with motivation today, and I think they did that. And credit to them because they did it in a new formation.”
The Five Stripes seemed more fit, more focused and all-around sharper. They were quicker to the ball, let shots fly and connected on tackles.
After the beating D.C. United, Jeff Larentowicz said the team wanted to put its game against the Dynamo in its rearview quickly. They were determined to not let a bad loss linger.
“One thing we focused on was really just giving that commitment. That was a word on the board – committing ourselves, playing with conviction, doing the things we do best,” Larentowicz said. “It seemed like last week we were second guessing ourselves. We wanted to put that away.”
The 3-5-2 worked
One reason Atlanta played much better in this game was a formation change deployed by Martino. He deviated from his typical 4-2-3-1 for a 3-5-2. The Argentinian manager has tinkered with it this preseason, using it briefly in a handful of games.
It worked to near perfection on Sunday. Martino said he went to the 3-5-2 because it seemed like last week that the Five Stripes were “lacking bodies in the midfield.”
While the change stacked the midfield and more attackers on the field, it also put several players in their natural positions. Miguel Almirón played more centrally in the attack and ended the game with a goal and an assist. A week ago, he whiffed at a goal and missed a penalty kick.
Julian Gressel was pushed out wide and made several nice passes. He tallied an assist on the goal Almirón scored and nearly scored a goal of his own, but it was tipped away. Against Houston, it was Gressel who served as the CAM, but he had very little impact on the game.
“The formation switch was a tactical switch by the coach,” Larentowicz said. “It’s twofold, you get your captain back there in the back, and certainly last year I played (CDM) the majority of the time. There’s definitely a comfort level there.”
Of course, Martino wouldn’t say if he would stick with the formation heading into next week, when the Five Stripes host the Vancouver Whitecaps.
“I’m not saying that we’re going to play that way every game – the team is capable of playing both systems,” Martino said through a translator. “We thought it was a good chance to try it today.”
The defense was much better
Perhaps the biggest difference between Sunday’s game against D.C. United and last weekend vs. the Dynamo was that Atlanta didn’t give up four goals in one half.
Brad Guzan faced one shot-on-goal all day. The Black-and-Red only found the back of the net after a Yamil Asad pass ping-ponged around the box before landing at the feet of Darren Mattocks. He found the back of the net, but it came in the 86th minute after Atlanta had already scored three times.
The Five Stripes’ defense was undermanned with just three center backs, but they were sharp and aggressive. Atlanta United blocked four shots, won 16 tackles, and took their defending a step further, fouling the opposition seven times, garnering two yellow cards.
Those latter stats aren’t particularly good ones to accumulate, but it does show how hard-nosed Atlanta played.
“Our energy was much better today,” Guzan said. “Our ability to win first ball, second ball, tackles – the dirty work, if you will – that allowed us to go on play good football at times… If you don’t bring it physically, then regardless of how good you are talent-wise, it’s not going to be able to show.”
Michael Parkhurst, the captain, didn’t accumulate any eye-popping stats, but led the defense with a steady hand and commands in his return to the starting lineup.
“Parky is a big player for us,” Guzan said. “He’s our captain, he reads the game well. He sniffs out danger before it turns into a big problem and that’s important for us.”
The fans had an impact
As D.C. United fell behind early and tried to collect itself, it had an announced 72,035 fans screaming in its ear in a roofed stadium. That total breaks a Major League Soccer record for single game attendance.
“I don’t think we really have casual fans here,” Guzan said. “I think everyone kind of joins into that atmosphere of singing and chanting and that’s what makes it fun.”
Mercedes-Benz Stadium erupted each time one of the Five Stripes scored. It went quiet for just a brief moment when Mattocks notched a goal, but then began yelling, dancing and chanting again when southern hip-hop played over the loudspeakers.
The crowd roared late in the game when 17-year-old Andrew Carleton – Atlanta United’s first homegrown signing – entered the game. It was his first time stepping onto the field at the Benz during a game.
“Playing at home I think we always have a little bit of an extra edge,” Carleton said. “… The ‘We Ready’ is one of my favorite ones coming out before the game or at halftime. Sitting on the bench, I always kind of look around and see what the fans are singing and dance a little bit to the beat. It’s pretty awesome.
“I feel like there’s a rhythm to how they cheer. Some of it’s Spanish, some of its English, and it kind of has all kinds of different flair, which I think is what Atlanta is all about.”