Early in Frank de Boer’s first season as manager, fans and players alike complained about his methodical, defensive approach. So de Boer unleashed his team to return to its all-out attacking ways. The move has paid off with a climb up the table and two trophies.
Saturday against Columbus, though, this mentality allowed the Crew to expose a team that struggled to raise its level after a two-week break.
“They were very solid, very organized team,” Emerson Hyndman said after training Tuesday. “They were pressing. We expected them to sit off a little bit more. When we realized they weren’t, we tried to adjust the best we could. It just wasn’t working. It’s a matter of patience. We were rushing it a little bit at times. Playing on transition a little bit too much, kind of back and forth, which killed our game plan a little bit.”
Atlanta was sloppy with its passes and touches throughout the Columbus game. A lack of focus clearly plagued de Boer’s players. Afterward, the manager and Julian Gressel told reporters the training sessions leading up had been poor as well. When Atlanta took possession into the attacking third against the Crew, it often made the first move toward goal available, even if the chances were not high percentage.
The Five Stripes were unable to get organized and lock on their opponent, which resulted in dangerous counter attacks that capitalized on the pace of Gyasi Zardes and Luis Diaz. Each Columbus goal came in transition.
De Boer told his players a bad result can always happen, “but not in the way we played.”
“That was a bad result and a bad performance,” he said Tuesday. “You can be unlucky and you were much better: they blocked like five, six times a shot, [we] hit the post, a great goalkeeper. That can happen sometimes. You can still have a bad result, but the performance was OK. After the game against Dallas, we had a really good performance but we lost. I gained much more positivity out of that than the two games before that. Now we have to show that we can have a good performance, and probably we will have a good result.”
Leandro González-Pírez, who did not play against Columbus due to a yellow card suspension, said his teammates may have been surprised by how hard the Crew pressed, not high up the field, but after Atlanta advanced the ball. That game plan, combined with Atlanta’s sloppiness and a desire to get into the opposing penalty area as quickly as possible, was disastrous. Going into its final five games and through the postseason, the Five Stripes must split the difference between too attack-minded and too defensive.
“I think it’s a matter of balance,” Hyndman said. “If you don’t have a shot in the first 20 minutes, you need to change things up. If it’s the opposite way and you are conceding chance after chance, but you are getting chances you might need to slow it down a little bit. It’s just reading the game as a player and realizing as a team whether you need to slow it down a little bit or speed it up a little bit. Just depends upon how the game is going. If it’s too spread, players are running 60 yards back and forth it’s probably not the best.”
De Boer, Hyndman and González-Pírez all agreed the team has improved in training this week.
“What I saw yesterday and today, everybody was much more alert,” de Boer said. “Everybody was anticipating and not reacting. That is, when you are in a performance like [against] Columbus Crew, you are reacting, and we have to anticipating. When you are anticipating you are already one or two steps forward. You are already have the body tension, the muscle tension. You are anticipating. When you are reacting your muscles aren’t tense.”
Wednesday night’s game at FC Cincinnati poses a similar challenge to that which Atlanta just failed. Cincinnati has the worst record in Major League Soccer, but under new manager Ron Jans — a Dutchman who crossed paths with de Boer when both managed in Holland’s Eredivisie — the team has shown the faintest signs of life. (Jans’ PEC Zwolle side defeated de Boer’s Ajax 5-1 in the 2014 KNVB Cup final.)
Jans has said the remainder of this season is an extended trial to see who will be around in 2020. Cincinnati won at the Montreal Impact, a team fighting for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot, the same day Atlanta fell to Columbus.
“We know we’re going to face guys who are playing for their jobs,” González-Pírez told reporters Tuesday. “So it doesn’t matter that they’re in last place or that they’re having a bad season. These guys are trying to prove themselves and show the coach that they belong and that they have a spot in the team next year. It doesn’t matter where they are in the standings. They’re going to come out and give everything they have and we have to go out and show that same kind of attitude and give everything we have in this game, because we know what we’re up against.”