Soccer is hard.
Atlanta United find themselves in a massive 3-0 hole after their Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal first leg defeat to the Philadelphia Union on Tuesday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Despite dominating large portions of the match and creating many good scoring opportunities, the Five Stripes still managed to end up on the wrong side of a lopsided score line. While losing is never easy to take, there are plenty of positives for this side to build on after suffering the first loss of the Gabriel Heinze era. Here are a few thoughts on a frustrating result.
The Right Signs
I’ll be the first to tell you that “moral victories” may be the dumbest concept in all of sports. However, there can definitely be good signs in a loss. Despite the scoreboard reading 3-0 to the Union, Atlanta United were far and away the best team in the match. The first 55 minutes was a bloodbath with Heinze’s side pressing intensely and catching Philadelphia off-guard. It was clear only one team came to play with the aggression and intensity you’d expect in a CCL quarterfinal. The really unfortunate part is that Andre Blake is the best goalkeeper in MLS and one of the best in Concacaf. It’s probably lazy to only give credit to Blake for making the saves that he did. To be completely fair, you have to finish clear chances when you get them, no matter who is between the opposing posts. Atlanta didn’t get the job done in that regard and it ended up costing them dearly.
Putting the ball in the net is the most difficult and most important thing to do in soccer. The really good news is that the Five Stripes did everything else really, really well for the majority of the match. From pressing as a team and winning the ball back quickly to passing around the Union as if it were a training session, all the ingredients were put together for a scrumptious dessert. Unfortunately, the oven just happened to be broken and nothing good came out.
Gabriel Heinze’s system is uber-focused on overloading both wings and creating matchup headaches for the opposing team. Problem is, the wingers at Heinze’s disposal are struggling to impact the game. Marcelino Moreno and Jake Mulraney have been the two preferred wingers for the most part this season. Moreno has undeniable quality and technique, but as a winger he looks out of place and misused. Meanwhile, Mulraney had a very productive preseason against local lower division teams, but still lacks the technical acumen you want at this level.
Then there’s Jurgen Damm who got the start in this match and was the team’s primary driver as far as the final ball goes. There aren’t enough fingers on the human hand to count how many times he was left 1 v 1 with a chance to either deliver service into the box or dribble past a defender to create a chance. With the system so heavily focused on creating for those winger positions, whoever gets those opportunities needs to deliver a better and more consistent end product.
Right now it’s unclear how much wiggle room the Atlanta front office exactly has when it comes to bringing in new players. However, if the chance arises in the summer, adding a dynamic winger with the ability to create and finish would be ideal for Heinze’s approach.
Atlanta United is back in more ways than one
We all wanted to the high-flying, exciting, attacking style back in Atlanta. There’s no doubt in my mind after this match that it’s back with a vengeance. Unfortunately, with it comes the risk of getting countered to death when things go poorly. Much like Ben Olsen used to frustrate Tata Martino’s sides in the early days with his big black and white bus, teams are going to be able to take advantage of Atlanta’s aggression. The Union has just handed the rest of MLS the blueprint on how to beat an uber-aggressive Heinze team. Now it’s up to them to address the issues of getting exploited and over-committing. It’s really nothing to get too worried about, it comes with the territory of being an extremely attack-minded side. However, it’s something we’re all going to have to learn to adjust to once again.