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Frank de Boer: Atlanta United must improve defending in transition

De Boer implores his players to fight fatigue and track back.

MARIETTA, Ga. — Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said overcoming fatigue and defending with urgency in the immediate moments after ceding possession will be the keys to stopping a two-game losing streak. The Five Stripes host Minnesota United Wednesday night at 7 p.m. It is Atlanta’s seventh game in 25 days.

“Transition to defense,” de Boer said Tuesday, when asked what his team needs to improve after the 2-1 loss at Real Salt Lake. “We always say, ‘If you’re going to rest, rest in your position. Don’t jog back, and then at the end you have to make a sprint.’ If you analyze that, I think we have to improve.”

Atlanta was undone by two goals from distance against RSL last Friday. In his postgame comments, De Boer acknowledged the quality of both strikes but lamented that his team did not prevent them before RSL entered the Five Stripes’ defensive third. On Sebastián Saucedo’s 36th-minute opener, the manager pointed to a late reaction when his players attempted to counter-press after losing the ball. Before Jefferson Savarino’s 94th-minute winner, de Boer shouted for his players to commit a foul so they could stop play and reorganize. That instruction went unheard.

A similar lapse cost Atlanta in its 1-0 defeat at the New York Red Bulls on May 19. In the 65th minute, the Five Stripes lost possession in the New York half. Red Bulls defender Sean Nealis dribbled unencumbered to midfield and passed to Daniel Royer on the right wing. No one closed Royer down, and he played a long cross toward Brad Guzan’s back post. Tom Barlow, also unmarked, sent a glancing header into the corner of the net for his first Major League Soccer goal. Despite playing with a man advantage for 55 minutes, Atlanta took zero points from the game.

The former Ajax, Barcelona and Netherlands centerback said tracking back in defense is the most difficult aspect of the game on tired legs.

“You have four items in football,” de Boer explained. “It’s attacking, defending, transition to attack and transition to defense. Transition to defense is the hardest one, for everyone, because pushing forward is nice. Tracking back is the hardest one. That’s mentality. We struggled with it. I think the teams who do that the best, they are normally the most solid teams.

“Of course, a lot of times quality will make the difference, but if you are not having a good day, this kind of aspect of the details of football are very important. You have to recognize when you have to step out, press forward or just, hey, come back in shape, wait, let them play around us and choose the right moment to press. I think we can do much better in that perspective.”

Atlanta and Minnesota are 2017 expansion siblings, and the United from Way Down South has unquestionably enjoyed a better two years and change in MLS. The Five Stripes won MLS Cup in 2018, and their record-breaking attack scored 140 goals in their first two regular seasons. The Loons have yet to make the MLS Cup playoffs, and their record-breaking defense allowed 141 goals in their first two regular seasons.

This year could be different. Through 13 games, Minnesota and Atlanta sit fifth in their respective conferences, the Loons on 21 points and the Five Stripes on 20. Both teams have a plus-three goal differential, but they are doing it in different ways. High-flying Minnesota has scored 21 and allowed 18, while a grounded Atlanta side has scored 14 and allowed 11. 

“They are a really good team, really want to work hard,” de Boer said of Wednesday’s opponent. “Of course they have [Darwin] Quintero and [Angelo] Rodriguez, very good forwards. They are very complimentary on each other. One is stronger, one is moving around well, is good in one-against-one actions. With [Osvaldo] Alonso, with his passing skills and his experience — again, they work hard together. That’s always the first thing that a coach wants to see. That’s why they are getting the results. 

“I don’t know how they are going to play, going to play with five [at the back] — they played sometimes with five — or going to play with four. It doesn’t matter. We have to win our home games.” 

Should Minnesota manager Adrian Heath instruct his team to bunker and counter out of a back-five formation, transition defending may again prove to be the deciding factor for Atlanta.

Over the past five games, the Five Stripes been without Ezequiel Barco, who is starring for Argentina at the Under-20 World Cup in Poland. Atlanta lost Héctor “Tito” Villalba to a knee injury after the Red Bulls game. Villalba missed the RSL defeat, and he is not expected to play against Minnesota or on Saturday against the Chicago Fire. Significant absences and a busy schedule have made the month of May a difficult one for de Boer’s team. After Atlanta takes a three-and-a-half-week international break at the beginning of June (save for two potential U.S. Open Cup games), the Five Stripes will come right back with another eight-games-in-one-month stretch. Atlanta could again be without important players at the beginning of that run due to the Concacaf Gold Cup and Conmebol Copa America.

“It’s far from ideal, that’s for sure,” de Boer said. “But we are not on the same calendar as FIFA. They try to do the South American tournament and the Gold Cup at the same FIFA dates, but MLS is still playing at that moment. … So if our players do well in that tournament, we are going to miss them. That’s far from ideal.

“The good thing, normally, is other teams have the same problem. Of course, you always want to have the strongest team, but I have to do with what I have at that moment, and if that’s without Josef [Martínez], I have to put another one in. I always will put 11 on the sheet, that’s for sure.”

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