Matchday: 9 (4/23/23)
Opponent: Chicago FC
Stadium: Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Score: 2 - 1 (Giakoumakis - ‘13, Haile-Selaisse *OG* - ‘90+9) (Przybylko - ‘90)
Updates: Franco Ibarra returns from his red card suspension. Thiago Alamada and Andrew Gutman are fit and healthy.
Attack to the Death
Head coach Gonzalo Pineda stuck to his 4-2-3-1 formation in Atlanta’s home game against Chicago FC. Gutman started at left back after having suffered a minor injury a few weeks back. Santiago Sosa and Matheus Rossetto started alongside each other as holding midfielders. Almada also returned from injury and filled the #10 role. Quentin Westberg started in goal with Bradley Guzan out for about two months. Besides that, it was the same lineup as last week’s away match, but with newly capped international Caleb Wiley and Amar Sejdic dropping to the bench.
Atlanta started the first half in the fiery fashion that they usually do. Attack-minded Andrew Gutman had a goal disallowed in the 5th minute after he tapped in a low-driven cross from Giorgios Giakoumakis. Despite this, it didn’t take long for Atlanta to get one on the scoresheet when Almada from deep pinged the ball cross-field to Brooks Lennon to chase.
Almada seemed to have overhit the ball, but Lennon made a valiant effort to keep it in and cross it to Giakoumakis at the center of the box. Giakoumakis calmly took a touch and slotted it in the back of Chicago’s net giving Atlanta a 1-0 lead. That’s 5 goals in 5 consecutive starts for Giakoumakis - the second player ever in MLS history to record such a feat.
As the first half went on, Chicago started to ease their way into the game. They consistently pressed Atlanta’s backline trying to force errors. In the 26th minute, Rossetto turned the ball over in the middle of the park giving Chicago a dangerous chance that they failed to capitalize. In the 37th minute, Atlanta tries to play out the back, but Gutman turns the ball over and forces Westberg to make a good save with his right leg.
During the halftime break, second-choice goalkeeper Quentin Westberg was substituted for third-choice keeper Clement Diop because of what was later confirmed to be some sort of knee injury. In the 58th minute, Giakoumakis had to come off with what seemed to be a reaggravated injury from last week. From the 60th minute to about the 90th minute, it was practically all Chicago.
Atlanta was forced to defend and couldn’t maintain possession of the ball or create any chances. Instead, it was attack after attack after attack from Chicago. This was very uncharacteristic of an Atlanta side playing at home. Chicago’s efforts eventually paid off when Franco Ibarra made a poor back pass to the keeper and Chicago capitalized on the mistake to score a tap-in with Atlanta’s backline in disarray.
If Atlanta wanted to come out with all three points, they would need a miracle, and a miracle is exactly what they got. In the ninth minute of added time, Brooks Lennon crossed the ball into a dangerous area, and the ball, fortunately, bounced off Chicago defender Maren Haile-Selaissie’s back and into the goal. The entire Mercedes-Benz Stadium erupted into loud cheers as they were seconds away from conceding a lead in three straight games in a row.
WHAT WENT WRONG
There’s a lot that went wrong with Atlanta in this match. Even Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda said that this was probably the worst game that they played all season, and I think he’s right. First off, there were way too many uncharacteristic turnovers from our side. Whether we were trying to play out from the back or a lack of game awareness, these turnovers gave Chicago plenty of chances that they just so happened to only capitalize off of one.
Atlanta could have had 2 or 3 scored on them if they were going up against a higher quality side. These turnovers were happening in open-play, for example, Ibarra’s turnover, and also when Atlanta was trying to press out the back. To be fair, Chicago did press intensively, but Atlanta has played out of the back so much better in the recent past. And when that wasn’t working, they never decided to switch up their game plan and play a long ball over the top to alleviate pressure.
Overall, it was rather sloppy defending. Not just the turnovers, but there was a lack of organization in the back. Chicago players were getting too much time on the ball to make a pass or have a shot. Atlanta’s defense has played much better in previous games this season. If we want to be serious title contenders, we can’t keep conceding goals in an uncharacteristic fashion.
That’s unacceptable for a top team like Atlanta, and this is an area that Pineda will continue to emphasize. It hurts even more given that Pineda came into the match demanding that the team “defend to the death” and stop conceding late goals.
Another issue is that Atlanta needs to work on their transitional play - particularly their counterattacks. There were two instances when Gutman received the ball from out of his box to start the counter attack, but he messed up the outlet pass to the winger. Either it got intercepted, or it was behind the player, so it slowed down the entire attack. This needs to improve. Had he been sharper, Atlanta could have created two very deadly chances right after defending their own goal.
Another issue was the lack of game management in the second half. For just about thirty minutes, it was all Chicago attack. It’s not in Atlanta’s style to sit back for long periods of time. We’re a possession team, so we always looked shaky being off the ball for so long. Again, to be title contenders, Atlanta needs to learn better game management. This includes both not conceding late and dictating the tempo of the match.
I know this category of “what went wrong” is rather long, but there are many issues that need to be discussed. Another concern is the number of injuries we’re picking up only on matchday 9. As of right now, we have our first and second choice keeper out as well as our starting striker. These are two big positions we need to have secured and healthy if we want to continue our relatively good form. I’m not sure what the reason for this is or what the solution should be, but it’s worth addressing.
Overall, the second half was nerve-wracking and unacceptable. Playing like that at home - sitting back, few chances created, sloppiness, etc - was uncharacteristic of Atlanta. In my opinion, I thought Chicago was by far the better team in the second half and they would have deserved to walk away with at least a point. Now that I’ve gotten the negatives out of the way, let’s move on to the positives…
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Well, I thought both our keepers did an astounding job. Westberg had to fill in the big shoes of Guzan, and he did just that. He made great saves in the first half up until halftime. With him picking up an injury, Diop was asked to rise to the occasion, and he too did an astounding job. Although it ended in a goal, the initial save he made after the turnover from Ibarra was brilliant.
Another good thing is that we’re scoring. Last season, Atlanta struggled to score with an out of form Josef Martinez. But this season, we have goals coming from many places, but primarily our designated striker Giakoumakis. He’s been a great addition to the team.
The way Pineda deploys Almada is great. Almada plays that roaming #10 role similar to Lionel Messi. This gives him a lot of freedom to find spaces all over the pitch to have an impact causing opposing players all sorts of trouble. At the beginning of the match, he was playing more deeply and created the play that led to our first goal. He then roamed center, driving the ball forward whenever he could. This role allows him to be creative and unlock the best out of him.
Despite the late game-winner, this was by no means one of our better games by any stretch of the imagination. However, Atlanta plays Nashville SC away this Saturday who sit in 6th, so this will be another test of our character. If we play the attacking possession football that we’re used to, we should come out with a positive result.