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Three takeaways from Atlanta United’s blowout loss to Houston Dynamo

Mar 3, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Dynamo defender Philippe Senderos (4) and Atlanta United midfielder Miguel Almiron (10) battle for the ball during the second half at BBVA Compass Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

To say Atlanta United FC was humbled by the Houston Dynamo on Saturday would be too kind.

Saying the Dynamo dominated, destroyed and crushed the Five Stripes would be harsh, but correct.

In an outcome that few, if any, expected, Houston sprinted out to a 4-0 lead in the first half at BBVA Compass Stadium on Saturday and held that margin for the remainder of the game. Atlanta’s defense seemed broken, it’s offense was lost, and the entire unit seemed like it fell victim to miscommunication.

Leandro González Pirez missed tackles and got injured. Miguel Almirón whiffed on chances. Even Brad Guzan deflected a ball that was heading out of bounds back in to a Dynamo player who capitalized on his mistake for the team’s fourth goal.

Here’s three takeaways from Atlanta United’s abysmal performance against the Houston Dynamo in the season opener.

Defense stuck in first gear

The Five Stripes’ defenders looked absolutely lost in the first half. Five minutes into the match, González Pirez’s poor clearance wound up at the feet of Alberth Elis. The 22-year-old from Honduras quickly discovered that none of the Five Stripes defenders could keep up with him. He sprinted past González Pirez and then nutmegged Guzan while giving an assist to Andrew Wegner for Houston’s first goal of the day.

Atlanta’s backline had no answer for Elis. The young midfielder ran circles around them and frustrated González Pirez to the point where the centerback was shown a yellow card, one of three for Atlanta on the day, for stepping in front of Elis on a breakaway. Elis ended up with another assist later and created several more chances for his teammates.

Houston scored its second goal off a corner when Phillipe Senderos was left unmarked and rose up for an easy header. Mauro Manotas scored minutes later when he recovered the ball from a scrum and blasted it into the net, and Darwin Ceren scored Houston’s fourth and final goal during added time in the first half after Guzan tapped the ball his way.

No one on defense seemed to be on the same page for the first 40 minutes of the game. Around that time is when González Pirez went down with a hip injury and was relieved by the Five Stripes’ captain, Michael Parkhurst. With the veteran in, Atlanta’s defense seemed to communicate better and got to their marks quicker. Aside from Guzan’s gaffe, the Atlanta’s defense played much better with Parkhurst quarterbacking it.

All last season, Atlanta never gave up four goals in a single game. On Saturday, the defense allowed that much in one half.

Tata’s lineup brought questions

It was obvious that Ezequiel Barco’s injured right quad would change how Gerardo “Tata” Martino mapped out his formation. He stuck with his traditional 4-2-3-1, but some of the player placement was odd.

Martino played several players out of their natural positions. Almirón, who typically operates from the center of the attack, was pushed out left where Barco would’ve started. Almirón has played as a left wing some in his career, but players like Darlington Nagbe and Hector Villalba have much more experience there. Villalba was kept on the right, Nagbe stayed in the defensive midfield, and Julian Gressel was plugged in as that central attacker, Almirón’s typical role.

What was more puzzling was seeing Chris McCann start again at defensive midfield and seeing Jeff Larentowicz at centerback. Given how well Parkhurst played for 50-plus minutes, it seemed that he was fit enough to start. Larentowicz is much better playing as a 6 than a centerback, and McCann is better as an outside back. Perhaps Martino didn’t have faith in the 34-year-old Parkhurst’s fitness level.

The position changes became noticeable when mistakes for Larentowicz and McCann started piling up. Dynamo players sprinted through the middle of Atlanta’s defense all afternoon.

On the offensive end, Gressel didn’t make an impact on the game, and Almirón seemed off from start to finish. Almirón whiffed on an excellent feed from Josef Martínez in the 30th minute and then clanked a penalty kick off the left post to start the second half.

Kevin Kratz and Brandon Vazquez entered the game late in the second half, but neither made moves that were noticeable.

Atlanta United put just two shots on-goal for the entire game, compared to 10 from Houston.

Don’t panic

It’s too early for that. There’s 33 games left and the Five Stripes have plenty of goals in the tank. This team went through several changes in the offseason and battled some preseason injuries. They’re still building chemistry.

Barco arrived late, then got hurt. Villalba missed a lot of preseason training with an abductor injury. As a whole, the team is also still getting used to not seeing Yamil Asad and Carlos Carmona around. Both players had a lot to do with the Five Stripes’ success a season ago.

The first 45 minutes of Saturday’s game was arguably the worst Atlanta has ever played. They’ll be working hard this week to not repeat that against D.C. United, a side that took nine points from the Five Stripes a season ago.

Extra! Extra!

  • It was the official Atlanta United debut for Franco Escobar and Nagbe.
  • Larentowicz made his 339th career MLS start, tying him for seventh place all-time among non-goalkeepers. Larentowicz was Atlanta’s captain for the match, but gave Parkhurst the armband when he entered.
  • The club officially classified González Pírez’s injury as a right hip contusion and said he is “day-to-day.”

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