Atlanta United: Recent win gives a nice glimpse into the future

Atlanta United (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Atlanta United (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images) /

Atlanta United finally snaps their three-game losing streak

Atlanta United picked up three big points in their 1-0 win over FC Dallas on Wednesday night. Dallas entered the night third in the Western Conference standings after three straight wins, but a Matt Hedges handball in the box led to Atlanta’s lone goal on the night. Atlanta captain Jeff Larentowicz cooly put the penalty away in the 55th minute.

Meanwhile, Atlanta snapped a three-game losing streak and now find themselves above the playoff line in tenth place. They travel to Chicago on Sunday for an Eastern Conference showdown with playoff implications on the line.

More importantly for Atlanta is the way in which they won. It wasn’t pretty every step of the way and there were certainly a few moments where it looked like Atlanta’s defense would make a catastrophic mistake. However, the Five Stripes hung on to win and, in the process, may have provided a glimpse into the near future.

Significant improvement for Atlanta United

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After two straight matches in which the team conceded a goal in the first two minutes, Atlanta looked much livelier against Dallas right out of the gate. And this time, the defense actually prevented the opposing team from scoring moments after kickoff. In fact, Atlanta’s defense posted its first clean sheet since September 2nd in a goalless draw against Inter Miami.

What changed? Well, despite posting a clean sheet, the defense didn’t look markedly improved. There are two key points to take away from Wednesday night’s defensive performance, however. Individual performances along the backline were much improved while the team’s ability to press high up the pitch kept the defense from being overly compromised.

Atlanta got two very big individual performances out of defenders Fernando Meza and Franco Escobar. Both displayed a grit missing from the center back pairing of Miles Robinson and Anton Walkes in previous weeks. Meza looked comfortable on the ball, dribbling into space when necessary and picking out the right passes, while also vocally organizing the defense throughout the match. Meza finished 44 of 49 in passing and made some key tackles, including a big one inside his own box late in the match.

Meanwhile, Escobar played arguably his best match of the season. The Argentine has drawn ire from the Atlanta fanbase for inconsistent performances this year. Escobar himself even pointed out individual areas that needed improvement, including his on-field body language when things are going south for the team. On Wednesday night Escobar was strong, winning 6 of 9 duels in the match and providing flexibility in the team’s formation throughout the game.

Is this here to stay for Atlanta United?

Following three straight losses and finding themselves sitting below the playoff line, Stephen Glass and his staff needed to change something. They did, employing an intense high press not seen from Atlanta United in a very long time.

The team has pressed their opponents from time to time since Glass took over as interim back in early August, but Wednesday night’s pressing was a clear improvement over previous matches. This pressing was improved partly from player selection and partly from collective improvement over time. As the team trains more together under Glass, instructions become clearer and game plans become easier to understand and execute. Atlanta’s pressing looked organized for most of the match in a way not yet seen this season.

After the match, Glass had this to say:

It looks as though Atlanta will continue to high press their opponents for the foreseeable future. This is a huge development for a team that has often looked stale and unmotivated in recent matches. Pressing is arguably the most important tactical aspect in the modern game of soccer. It can be used to boost a team’s identity (Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona pressed to regain possession) or it can be a team’s sole identity (New York Red Bulls’ Supporters Shield winning 2018 season was characterized by their high pressing).

In MLS, pressing is a major factor for numerous teams both in the past and in the present. For a long time, Red Bulls relied on pressing to make up for a lack of talent. When the team pressed together, they usually won together. LAFC are probably the league’s most consistent pressing team currently. LAFC presses to win possession, which in turn allows their team to control the ball for large portions of the game.

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Atlanta are lacking talent compared to past iterations of the team, so pressing may be the answer to a successful rest of the 2020 season. If the team can press in an organized fashion similar to Wednesday night, they may stand a chance at finishing the season strong and even making a run in the playoffs. Wednesday night’s win over Dallas offered us a glimpse into what that might look like.