Is it fair to say "OK, a new coach gets at leasts a couple of months to instill his own approach before we really judge him," or is that too easy?
That's the big question – really the only question that matters, as of now – when looking at Atlanta United in the year 2019. Because things have not been great, or even good, or even mediocre for the Five Stripes, reigning MLS Cup champions, under new head coach Frank De Boer. They are 0-2-2 in league play, which puts them dead last in the Eastern Conference. They went out of the Concacaf Champions League with a whimper. And mostly... they have been very boring to watch.
It seems like bizarro world in a lot of ways, because the one thing Atlanta never were under previous head coach Tata Martino was "boring." They could be occasionally frenetic and sometimes profligate, and by the time last year's postseason came around they were much more pragmatic than high-octane. But from a neutral's perspective, for two straight years this team was one of the most fun in MLS history.
Obviously that's one juxtaposition when comparing what happened in 2017 and 2018 to what's happened so far in 2019. "Fun" vs. "Not fun" is pretty stark.
The other is that it just didn't take long for Martino's team to ramp up to excellence. There was no "give him a couple of months to see if this works" under Martino because Atlanta threw it into fifth gear by literally the second game of their existence and mostly stayed there throughout. It's a comparison that does not flatter the new regime.
Three things De Boer & Co. could do to try to fix what's been ailing this Atlanta group:
1. Accept that this personnel does not create chances out of possession
Or rather, they create "chances," but not good ones. I think this is a personnel thing, as both Darlington Nagbe and Ezequiel Barco have roughly the same skillset – they are wonderful on the ball, with close control through central midfield, and routinely beat one or two defenders to create the types of positional advantages coaches live to see.
But then, rather than pressing those advantages, neither sees the final ball. Instead, each is more comfortable peeling right and then laying it off for another attacker who usually 1) has a worse shot, and 2) shoots it anyway. Atlanta's average shot distance this year has jumped to 20 yards, up from 17.5 in 2018.
All that possession through the middle has been gained in service of creating worse shots. Not great, Bob.
2. Play on the counter
Julian Gressel is the best chance creator on the team, and Gressel's at his best in the open field. You can actually use the possession generated by Nagbe and Barco (and Eric Remedi) in central midfield to open up the flank for Gressel, and if you teach those first two guys how to hit a diagonal into space it could actually be devastating.
The simple principle at play is that Atlanta have not been good enough with the ball to disorganize their opponents, so it's best to invite the opponent forward and allow them to disorganize themselves in pursuit of a goal. Then win the second ball and use the space they've left open to find the sorts of high-leverage chances that have gone missing so far this season.
3. Shot discipline
This is staggering:
Atlanta United FC
Shots (outside box)
Shots (inside box)
They went from about a 2-1 ratio of shots inside the box to outside the box, to a 1-1 ratio. That's... rough.
Obviously there are a combination of factors at play (different personnel, different tactical approach), as well as a chicken-vs.-egg way of looking at it. Are they shooting outside the box more often because, tactically speaking, that's what the system is giving them? Or are they shooting from outside the box more because the players themselves aren't buying into the tactics and are thus short-changing the systemic adjustments De Boer has tried to make? Is it a leading or lagging indicator?
In the end it doesn't actually matter. Whether it's leading or lagging, it's something that needs to change.
Ok, onto the Qs:
I believe that "if you're good enough, you're old enough" should be the default approach for any club around the world, but I also understand that different clubs who are at different spots on the competitive curve – and spending curve – will have different approaches.
FC Dallas, for example, came to the end of the Mauro Diaz epoch about 12 months ago and were ripe for a youth-oriented rebuild through midfield, and hence you've got the 2019 edition of this team. Orlando City, on the other hand, have been trying to claw toward respectability, and most teams in search of that tend to go with proven veterans rather than kids. I get it.
From a broader point of view, though, there is this: I believe that a top-down emphasis on playing the kids is a good way for MLS teams to 1) make a lot of money, and 2) gain a competitive advantage both domestically and continentally.
Alphonso Davies and Tyler Adams weren't accidents, and Weston McKennie wasn't an accident. If Christian Pulisic was 14 years old today he'd be in the Philadelphia Union academy, and that wouldn't be an accident. I just listed at least $100 million worth of domestic talent, all age 20 or under.
Having those types of players getting meaningful minutes is a good business strategy, and is one of the best ways to close the gap on the top Liga MX sides without blowing up to Monterrey or Tigres-sized budgets. I'm not going to say it's a no-lose situation – most young players will cost their team points every now and again, and not all of them will develop properly – but the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term costs.
To bring it back to the top: I'll never complain about a 17-year-old who doesn't get MLS minutes. But once guys hit 18 or 19, if they're not getting out on the field every now and then, something has probably gone wrong. Sometimes it's the kid himself who's just not cut out for it, but too often (based upon the literally hundreds of conversations I've had about this subject with professional players, coaches and front office types), it's cultural.
Here's the checklist:
- After practice is there extra training to work on individual skills?
- After practice are there extra film sessions to work on tactical concepts?
- Do the veterans support and work with the kids or are they threatened by them?
- Are the kids likely to let success go to their heads, or are they in a situation where they'll be kept in check/on a professional path?
Start finding the right answers to those questions and you'll create a conveyor belt of talent. Every MLS team has enough local raw material to do so – maybe not at FC Dallas's level, but not far from that.
In the long term, it'll be worth it.
Depends upon where in the developmental curve that player happens to be. Some young players (looking your way, Brandon Servania) need to prove that they can just go out there and dominate entire games at the USL level. Other young players (thinking of Julian Araujo here) are best served at the moment by proving they can come in at a higher level and be a potentially difference-making situational sub.
I hate questions like this, but I'll indulge you, "Snarky tweeting hero."
- Philly have some of the best local coverage in the league. Go buy a newspaper (or a digital subscription).
- Adam Cann does an amazing job for the team website breaking down tactical intricacies
- There've been multiple features – written and video — on David Accam returning to his 2017 form
- The Athletic have had, I believe, multiple Union-focused features
- Every US U-20 article I've read has centered Mark McKenzie and Matt Real, and made passing mention of other Union youngsters
- We had multiple stories on the Union – including a Brenden Aaronson v. Paxton Pomykal breakdown — before last week's game
- I've written repeatedly about Philly (changing tactics, changing formations, changing personnel) in my Sunday round-up columns
I also don't think that this year feels a ton different from last season, when the Union were a playoff team and a US Open Cup finalist. That team was good! This team is deeper and more flexible, and have avoided the early-season struggles that have traditionally plagued Jim Curtin's teams.
No, but it's tough to see this team collectively making the same mistakes week after week.
Here's the worry: In 2017, RSL looked like they had a core of guys who could develop into elite players. In 2019, RSL look like they have a core of guys who... are still the exact same guys they were two years ago. That includes their Homegrown players as well as younger imports like Jefferson Savarino.
The good news is that they just played their toughest stretch of the schedule — five of their six games so far have been against ye olde woodchipper.
Beginning this weekend things get much more manageable. If the poor results continue, you have my permission to panic.
Por qué no los dos?
It's fun to me that this has become a legitimate question, as I think that becoming a player on the world market is an essential step in MLS's evolution.
With that in mind, here are the four young(ish) players who I think will attract the most attention this summer:
- Lucho Acosta: We already know about the PSG and Manchester United interest. Even if those teams pass on him, it means other teams from those respective leagues will at least come take a look. And when that happens, money usually follows.
- Diego Rossi: He's just turned 21 and is now officially in "tearing up the league" mode. The Uruguayan also possesses the type of elite, top-end speed so many European teams (particularly in England) covet.
- Alberth Elis: The 23-year-old turned a corner this offseason and has become a full-field, 90-minute force on the wing. Like Rossi he has elite athleticism, and unlike Rossi (so far) he pairs that with exceptional playmaking from the wing. There was serious interest from Fenerbache this winter. The interest will be serious-er and more widespread this summer.
- Pomykal: The only other teenaged central midfielders, in the history of the league, who've been as impactful as Pomykal are Adams and Michael Bradley. Both went on to play for top four teams in one of the top four leagues in the world (Spain, England, Italy, Germany), and teams of that caliber are seriously monitoring Pomykal's every move.
That's it for this week's mailbag. Thanks for the questions – sorry about the dozens I didn't get to – and see you back here next Wednesday!