Four-thousand miles from home, Atlanta United stayed on script and picked up another clean-sheet victory. The Five Stripes went into BC Place Wednesday night and came away with a 1-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps.
That is five consecutive wins, all of them clean sheets. That is a Major League Soccer record. After taking a paltry two points from its first four games, Atlanta now has 18 from its past seven. The Five Stripes are up to third place in the Eastern Conference with games in hand on DC United and the Philadelphia Union.
Gone are the high-flying days of the Tata Martino era, and here are pragmatic and professional — a word used numerous times in the Fox Sports South postgame coverage — performances that are becoming the trademark of manager Frank de Boer’s team. The Dutchman is turning Atlanta into a defensive juggernaut.
Vancouver tested Brad Guzan with only two shots on target, neither of which were all that threatening. The Whitecaps’ biggest chance came in the 81st minute when Lucas Venuto found enough space in the penalty area to fizz a pass across the face of goal, but it was just beyond a sliding Joaquín Ardaiz. Aside from that, the Five Stripes were in control.
De Boer carries the reputation of a man who wants his team to keep the ball for 90 minutes, but Atlanta is well-drilled without it. The Five Stripes do not press nearly as hard as they did at times under Martino, but when necessary after turnovers, their forward players typically get enough pressure on opponents to limit quick counter-attacking opportunities. That allows the holding midfielders and defenders to get organized, and these players always seem to be in position to cut out any passes that would lead to quality chances. The result: Atlanta allows an average of 8.7 shots per game, best in MLS. Guzan averages 2.1 saves per game, fifth-fewest in the league.
— Ben Baer (@BenBaer89) May 16, 2019
“You can see the confidence is growing and everyone knows their role,” de Boer said after the game, according to quotes provided by the club. “They want to work for each other and they understand each other better, and it’s been fun to watch.”
The Five Stripes attack still has not come close the the heights of 2017 and ‘18, and it may never under de Boer. Although, despite playing with a rotated lineup, the score against Vancouver could have been 3-0 if not for a few fine saves from Maxime Crépeau. Without as many goals to provide margin for error, Atlanta’s defensive performances must be stalwart.
Following a frustrating 1-1 home draw against Philadelphia on March 17 — Atlanta’s second straight 1-1 draw at home to open the MLS season — Michael Parkhurst said if the attack was going to be limited, his team needed to “have some shutouts.” Atlanta is getting those shutouts now.
Full debuts for Meram, Pogba
De Boer did not make drastic changes to his lineup in the name of rest, but new acquisition Justin Meram and offseason signing Florentin Pogba did see their names in the starting 11 for the first time. Meram took the place of Julian Gressel on the left wing. Pogba slotted in at left centerback, and Leandro González-Pírez moved over to the right side to give Miles Robinson a break.
Meram worked hard to find space with runs off the ball, and he provided energetic pressing when Atlanta was out of possession. But, he did not look to be on the same page with his new teammates, missing the mark on too many passes. Meram took three shots but did not put any on target. He made way for Gressel as the Five Stripes’ first substitution in the 64th minute.
It was a much better night for Pogba, and Atlanta’s back line did not miss a beat. Big Flo went 90 minutes and finished the night with one interception, two clearances and six recoveries. He was good on the ball and often released pressure by dribbling out of trouble and making an accurate pass upfield — Pogba connected on 92 percent of his 49 passes, misplacing just four.
“I think Pogba played a fantastic game today, he didn’t make a mistake,” de Boer said. “He was also very good in the buildup and defensively he was very good. It wasn’t easy, but you can see his experience and it was fantastic.
“Meram’s start was a bit difficult, but later in the game he improved and got more involved. So it was also nice to see. It’s nice that they’re ready to play when we need them, and especially Florentin the way he played, I was pleased.”
Atlanta has depth
Facing its fourth game in 11 days after a long road trip, Atlanta could not have been too disappointed with a draw or even a loss at Vancouver. The reality of playing a congested schedule in a salary-capped league means depth will be tested, and depth often is not good enough. This isn’t the case for the Five Stripes.
During a post-training media session a few weeks ago, de Boer indicated he has 14 or 15 players whom he trusts to insert in the starting 11. Parkhurst and Darlington Nagbe did not make the trip to Canada, so in stepped Brek Shea and Jeff Larentowicz. Both have started plenty of games, and both played well against the Whitecaps. In fact, this was Shea’s best game in an Atlanta shirt: Defensively, he led the team with 10 recoveries and four interceptions, and he added three key passes.
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) May 16, 2019
At 30, Meram still could be a regular starter for a number of MLS sides, and his performances should improve as he becomes acclimated with his new team. Pogba’s praises already have been sung in this column.
“I’m happy with how I played, and how the team played, because we were able to get the win, and that’s what’s important,” Pogba said. “Now we have to get some rest and focus on these games that we have coming up and hopefully I’ll get some more opportunities.”
When this summer’s big international tournaments come around, Atlanta could lose Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez, Josef Martínez and Héctor Tito Villalba. That scenario would create a test of depth on a more difficult level, but right now, Atlanta is showing it has enough quality past the first 11 to rest players without sacrificing points.