Atlanta United lost to FC Dallas, 2-1, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Saturday afternoon. The defeat leaves the Five Stripes with five points after six Major League Soccer games in 2019. Here are three takeaways:
How can Josef Martínez get involved?
Martínez is the reigning MLS Most Valuable Player. He scored 38 goals in the regular season and playoffs last year. Against FC Dallas, Martínez’s first shot came in the 79th minute. That is not ideal for a team that is struggling to score goals.
Part of the issue is Atlanta’s strategy under Frank de Boer. In 2019, Martínez is asked to drop deeper into midfield and help create for his teammates. This plan has created good chances in recent games, but often, it is someone other than MLS’s best goal-scorer taking the shot. When asked last week whether providing an assist is as enjoyable as scoring a goal, Martínez jokingly said his teammates “have to score for it to be an assist.” There is truth in that comment.
Martínez also faces opposing defenses that are wholly focused on stopping the Venezuelan from getting his chances. Dallas typically plays with two centerbacks, but against Atlanta, Luchi Gonzalez’s team added a third. Martínez hardly had any room to run onto the end of through balls and crosses, thus rendering ineffective the focal point of Atlanta’s sensational offensive displays in 2017 and ’18.
De Boer has to figure out, one way or another, how to get his best attacking player more involved.
Little margin for defensive errors
Dallas’ opening goal Saturday came after Leandro González-Pírez failed in an attempt to take the ball off of Michael Barrios with a sliding tackle near midfield. Barrios left González-Pírez on the turf and ran into the available space before playing a good pass to Jesús Ferreira for the assist. Atlanta played well in the first half, creating chances while limiting Dallas for the most part. But, one mistake left the Five Stripes with a deficit going into the locker room.
In the moments after Atlanta’s 1-1 draw against the Philadelphia Union last month, captain Michael Parkhurst said the team needed “to try to have some shutouts” while the attack struggled. That still is the case.
Atlanta played with three centerbacks for much of last season and didn’t allow a goal from open play during the playoffs. The Five Stripes can play with two centerbacks and keep opponents at bay — they proved that in their first win of the season at the New England Revolution. However, it requires the team’s central defenders to stay on an even keel and not take the risks allowed in a back three.
How much of this is bad luck?
In the opening stages of 2019, Atlanta’s attack was anemic. The struggles could be chalked up to a lack of time in training to fully learn de Boer’s tactics. That excuse is no longer valid.
The Five Stripes did not play poorly against Dallas, taking 22 shots and putting eight on target. Atlanta finished with 14 key passes — passes that lead directly to a shot — to Dallas’ four, 15 successful dribbles to Dallas’ four and 71 percent possession. That last stat was a result of both teams’ game plans: De Boer wants to keep the ball, and Dallas was happy to sit deep and hit on the counter. For most of the contest, though, Atlanta looked like the better team.
So, is Atlanta’s place near the bottom of the standings really reflective of what de Boer’s team can do this season? The Five Stripes are waiting for Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez to live up to his potential. Injuries have forced some significant players — Franco Escobar, Eric Remedi, Mikey Ambrose and George Bello — to miss time. Bad luck has been a factor in the results.
It doesn’t matter, though. Good teams overcome bad luck, and Atlanta needs to do that soon. The realistic goal for this season is already slipping from “winning the Supporters’ Shield” to “making the playoffs.” Anything less would be unfathomable.