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Dion Pereira gives Atlanta United much-needed attacking spark

Three takeaways from the Five Stripes’ 3-0 win over Minnesota United.

ATLANTA — With Ezequiel Barco off in Poland driving up his transfer value and Héctor “Tito” Villalba sidelined by a knee injury, Atlanta United has needed someone to step up on the left wing. Enter Dion Pereira. Pereira started his second consecutive game Wednesday and turned in an electrifying performance over 90 minutes.

I think it was a massive improvement from the Salt Lake game,” the 20-year-old Watford academy product said after Atlanta’s 3-0 win over Minnesota United.

Following a few positive substitute appearances, Pereira earned his first start for the Five Stripes last Friday at Real Salt Lake. Atlanta struggled to build attacking moves through possession and fell to a 2-1 defeat. The young Englishman often was pinned back in midfield and unable to show his skills in the attacking third.

That was not the case against Minnesota. The Loons sat deep for much of the evening, and Pereira relished his opportunities to attack opponents one-v-one. He torched fullback Hassani Dotson to get to the byline several times and consistently provided quality service into the penalty area. Pereira was successful on five-of-six dribbles, completed 94 percent of his passes and created four chances.

“Obviously, when you are attacking more, as an attacker you are loving it, because you do not have to defend as much,” Pereira said. “For me, personally, I love it because I can just get at my man, get at my man, and know that I have got my defenders behind me and every time the ball comes out.”

The Five Stripes signed Pereira from Watford in January. He dipped his toes in the water with Atlanta United 2 before debuting with the big club in a 10-minute cameo against FC Dallas on April 20. During Atlanta’s current gauntlet of eight games in 28 days, squad rotation has been necessary, and the 20-year-old has steadily increased his minutes. Manager Frank de Boer told reporters he has seen growth from Pereira this season.

“The first time he gave me a [handshake] when we introduced him, and it was like, ‘This is not a hand, man. You have to give a really firm hand, the hand of a man,’” de Boer said. “He has to be a man: go in the gym, be aggressive and not only the very beautiful player that he can be. Everywhere, in every league, you have to do more. What do you do with the other 88 minutes when you don’t have the ball. Do your pressing, do your work — what do you do?

“And now you see he is able to, and I think he understands that. So it’s nice to see he’s picking it up, and he’s listening to the players, also the staff, and this is his reward, that he is now playing the last couple of games.”

Return to form in transition defending

As its attack sputtered, transition defending killed Atlanta in consecutive losses at the New York Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake. The Five Stripes conceded three goals over the two losses, all against the run of play. After a training session earlier this week, de Boer identified this aspect of the game as that in need of the most improvement from his players.

The manager said Atlanta’s transition defending was “much, much better” during Wednesday’s victory.

Minnesota pressed the Five Stripes and played with a high defensive line to open the game, but the Loons quickly settled into a low block with five at the back. The plan was to win possession and spring forwards Abu Danladi and Darwin Quintero on quick, direct counterattacks. As the game played out and Minnesota pushed for an equalizer, Minnesota gained more possession and attempted to exert more pressure in Atlanta’s half. Miles Robinson and Leandro González-Pírez always were there to snuff out the danger.

Danladi and Quintero combined for one off-target shot. The former committed six fouls trying to run through Atlanta’s back line and picked up a caution early in the second half. Both players exited by the 70th minute.

“I think that shows that they weren’t effective enough, and that was probably down to Miles and Leandro for the most part, because those guys were very good on one-on-ones today,” captain Michael Parkhurst said. “They read the balls behind, and they made it really difficult for those guys — and those guys are very good players. So kudos to our center backs, because that’s a tough task.”

“I think it was a team effort, for sure,” Robinson added. “Obviously those guys are great center forwards. They’re quick, they’re fast and they want to do well based on your mistakes and their pressure. I thought today we managed them pretty well.”

Tough day for Ike Opara

In January, Minnesota traded for Ike Opara, the 2017 Major League Soccer defender of the year, in an effort to boost a defense that had been historically poor. The Loons allowed 171 goals in league play over their first two seasons.

Opara played a role in Atlanta’s three goals Wednesday night. On the first, the centerback deflected a pass into the path of fullback Franco Escobar, who took advantage of his good fortune and clinically finished from 12 yards. Opara found himself one-on-one with a slaloming Josef Martínez in second-half stoppage time, and he could not prevent the Venezuelan from dribbling into the box and doubling Atlanta’s lead. Three minutes later, Opara misplayed a long clearance with his head. The ball again fell to Martínez. He walked in to score his second of the night. Opara threw his protective headgear to the turf.

A 31st-minute scuffle pretty well summed up Opara’s frustrating night. Looking to get on the end of a free kick in the Atlanta penalty area, he was shouldered into the advertising boards by Robinson. Opara took exception and gave Robinson a shove in the back. Mean mugs and close-proximity trash talk ensued before Opara attempted to shake Robinson’s hand. He was denied, and he received a yellow card from referee Alex Chilowicz.

Robinson played it cool when asked about the incident after the game.

“I don’t know, it was just a set piece,” the 22-year-old said. “I shielded him off it, just a little shove in the back. But he got the yellow, so that’s fine with me.”

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