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Without Miles Robinson, Atlanta United will get pragmatic in playoffs

Atlanta is missing its best defender, which may limit its attack to open the MLS Cup playoffs.

Oct 6, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Miles Robinson (12) runs for the ball with New England Revolution forward Teal Bunbury (10) in the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)
Oct 6, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Miles Robinson (12) runs for the ball with New England Revolution forward Teal Bunbury (10) in the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

MARIETTA, Ga. — Miles Robinson departed the U.S. men’s national team with an apparent hamstring injury over the weekend, and now Atlanta United won’t have him for the start of the MLS Cup playoffs. Manager Frank de Boer said Thursday that Robinson’s hamstring strain would keep him out for Saturday’s playoff game against the New England Revolution.

This is a big problem for the Five Stripes.

It is difficult to argue against Josef Martínez as Atlanta’s most valuable player, but the one possible alternative is Robinson. The 22-year-old has anchored de Boer’s back line all season, whether in a back-four or back-three.

After a lethargic start to 2019, Atlanta enjoyed an attacking resurgence over the final two months of the regular season thanks to a move into a high-pressing 3-5-2 formation, and Robinson made this change possible. His speed and near-flawless record in one-v-one duels shields Atlanta from dangerous counter attacks when bodies are flooded into the attacking half. 

“He allows us to press forward knowing that he’s kind of that free safety,” midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said after Atlanta’s 3-0 win over the LA Galaxy Aug. 3.

With Robinson, a finalist for Major League Soccer’s 2019 defender of the year award, unavailable this weekend, it is hard to imagine Frank de Boer will allow his team to play the direct attacking style that has been on display since July.

Neither Leandro González-Pírez nor Florentin Pogba can match Robinson’s speed, discipline or ability to win the ball off an opponent. Franco Escobar in recent games has made the sort of individual errors that could end Atlanta’s season in a one-game knockout scenario. Michael Parkhurst, who at 35 announced his impending retirement last month, is still a master of defensive positioning and awareness, but he would be the first to admit his days of running down forwards in transition moments are behind him.

The back-three will look more like a back-five at times Saturday, as it did during the Five Stripes’ MLS Cup run in 2018, with Meram and Julian Gressel sitting deeper on the wings.

In Atlanta’s 3-1 win over New England on the final day of MLS’ regular season, de Boer shifted his lineup from a back-three to a back-four in the final half-hour, first in a 4-3-3 before closing the game in a 4-4-2.

De Boer likes these formations because, while they may not produce offensive fireworks from the Five Stripes, they are more structurally sound and allow his team to either dominate possession and stay organized in defense. The change allowed Atlanta to close out that win with relative ease after a nervy first half.

“I think you have to be more pragmatic in general, because of the playoffs,” Larentowicz said after training Tuesday. “Even in the first 15 minutes of the [last] game against New England, there was a tight offside call, there was a one-v-one chance where Brad [Guzan] makes a save and then they scored a goal. That’s all with Miles on the field. So the reliance on a guy like him goes out the window because you only have 90 minutes, and one mistake could lead to a goal and you lose the game.”

It is unlikely Atlanta will open Saturday’s game in a back four. Pogba, who has slotted in at left back at times this year, played 90 minutes in midweek with the Guinea national team before flying back to the United States from Spain. Mikey Ambrose and Mo Adams do not seem to have de Boer’s trust to crack the first XI at the position. The Justin Meram-at-wingback experiment has worked, but it would be asking too much of the natural winger to play him at fullback.

Still, the team has been training with different formations on the fly in the past two weeks. Do not be surprised to see the Five Stripes change into a back-four if they hold a second-half lead.

“You have to defend as a team,” Larentowicz said. “You have to defend as if you don’t have somebody back there sweeping things up, even if [Robinson’s] there. If he’s there, great, because he can do that job when he’s called upon to do that in space, but you have to defend as a group and get behind the ball.”

Defending as a team was Atlanta’s focus in the first half of this season, to some fans’ and players’ chagrin. De Boer typically deployed a 4-2-3-1 that was meant to dominate possession and fall into a 4-4-1-1 without the ball. The Five Stripes did dominate possession often, but they did not score many goals. In this single-elimination format, the defensive-minded de Boer may look to a stretch of games in April and May, when Atlanta won with five consecutive clean sheets, and say, “Yes, that’s the ticket.” The Five Stripes allowed a combined 12 shots on target versus the Colorado Rapids, Sporting Kansas City, Toronto FC, Orlando City and the Vancouver Whitecaps. 

“Those small details are always in big games decisive,” de Boer told reporters Thursday. “[Robinson’s absence] is one detail that is very important for us. We know if somebody breaks loose from the opponent, there is always Miles to recover with his speed.

“We don’t have that right now, so we have to be aware also up front that we do even more to not get in these kinds of situations and recognize those moments: Do we press forward or just drop a little bit back and let them play and we play in transition. All those things are going to be crucial I think on Saturday.”

“Recognize those moments” when Atlanta should press forward or get organized in defense: both Darlington Nagbe and Gressel used similar language when speaking with media Wednesday. This phrasing has not been heard much around the Children’s Healthcare Training Ground lately, but it was common before de Boer answered his players’ complaints and unleashed more aggressive attacking tactics in July. Now that the Five Stripes are 90 minutes from either advancing or having their season end, the manager may be more comfortable with a conservative, controlled game plans.

“Football is a game of mistakes,” de Boer said. “Maybe every sport is a game of mistakes. If we lose balls sloppy and easy in [transition], we are still wide open. We have maybe like four, five men in front of the ball. That means you can be punished.”

With Robinson missing, captain Michael Parkhurst appears set for a hero’s return to the center of Atlanta’s back line. Parkhurst has made one start since July 21 and last month announced his plans to retire at the end of this season. The 35-year-old was riding off into the sunset, but now he is back in the thick of the action. The Five Stripes are wary of the Revs’ pace in attack and direct style, so Parkhurst could play a major role in determining the result.

“You look at what Miles has brought to our back line this year in terms of his athleticism, his pace, his strength,” Brad Guzan said Thursday. “And now you’ve got somebody potentially … someone like Parky, who has the potential to come in and offers a different set of attributes in his ability to read the game, and we all know what he brings.

“Yes, Miles is and has been a big piece of our defensive structure this year, but at the same time we’ve got to look forward. We’ve got to look towards the game of how we’re going to advance and win.”

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