Atlanta United's fatal flaw exposed in "transitional season"


Atlanta United’s dream of raising another MLS Cup trophy went up in smoke Sunday night at Field, falling to the Columbus Crew, 4-2, in the decisive Match 3 of their Round One Best-of-3 series.

The setback ended a season that can be sliced in half, with Leagues Cup providing a clear separation point.

But the one consistency over the entire 34-match regular season, and in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, was defensive deficiencies – a theme that reared its head Sunday night when the Five Stripes conceded three times in the opening 33 minutes.

“Leaking goals, I think, has been our Achilles' heel the whole season,” Atlanta manager Gonzalo Pineda said post-match. “And one thing definitely we have to take a look at is how we can do better and solidify that. That doesn't mean the defenders, the goalkeeper, the center mids, it's everyone as a whole. We need to do better.”

Atlanta conceded 53 goals during the regular season – only Toronto FC and Inter Miami CF, who both failed to reach the playoffs, allowed more in the Eastern Conference.

And the Five Stripes conceded eight more times in the Round One Best-of-3 series, unable to corral Columbus' Cucho Hernández-led attack.

“It's managing moments. It's managing games,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “There’s a difference between always insisting on one way and then there's also the ability to say: 'Okay, at this moment of the game, can we look to do something else and change things up and have a little bit of a different tempo to us?' That's it. Now, how do you get that? I'm not entirely sure and that's something that as a group we’ll certainly reflect on.”

Tale of two seasons

Pineda was encouraged by what he saw post-Leagues Cup, when Atlanta found new life in the final third. That coincides with Tristan Muyumba, Saba Lobjanidze and Xande Silva arriving in the Secondary Transfer Window as Atlanta went 4W-2L-4D to secure the East's No. 6 seed.

“That part, the attacking, the aggression offensively is encouraging,” Pineda said. “What I said is again, we need to do better in the defensive phase. If we are able to maintain that level of attacking actions and goals production, but solidifying a little bit more our backline and our defensive structure as a whole, not just the defenders, I think we can do better.”

And those defensive deficiencies proved costly, especially when it came to playoff seeding.

Giorgos Giakoumakis pointed to a summertime stretch where the Five Stripes’ self-inflicted wounds cost them the chance to get a top-four seed and home-field advantage in the postseason.

“I think if you want to be a champion, first of all, everything starts from how you defend from the goalkeeper to the striker,” Giakoumakis, the 2023 MLS Newcomer of the Year, said. “How good are you in defense? And then at the same time, if you are dangerous in attack, then you can expect great things.”

What's next?

Atlanta's core is strong, but there are bound to be changes for 2024. And the biggest question involves the futures of Thiago Almada, who was named the 2023 MLS Young Player of the Year, and defensive linchpin Miles Robinson.

Almada, the young Argentine who provided the second-most goal contributions in MLS this year (30 with 11g/19a), has been the subject of transfer rumors. Robinson, the USMNT center back, is soon out of contract and has reportedly drawn interest from Europe.

Pineda wouldn’t speak definitively on the star players, but acknowledged change awaits in Atlanta this winter.

“It is certainly too soon. Let's wait. Let's see what happens. I don't know the future and I'm sure the club will do as always trying to bring good players,” he said. "And if we can retain some of those good players that are already here, I'm sure the club will try to do that as much as we can. So that's not in my power. We will see. I'm sure Carlos [Bocanegra] and the front office in general will deal with that and will try to bring a good team next year.”

Added Guzan: “Atlanta United is a club that we want to be challenging for trophies, simple as that. And in every area, I'm sure the front office will look to look to improve where we can and go from there and add to the group.”

Giakoumakis said it felt like Atlanta played three different seasons in 2023. Had the squad that ended the campaign also started it, the Greek international believes the script would have been written completely differently.

“No one is happy,” Giakoumakis said. “Everyone was sad after the game and frustrated and angry about it. In the end of the day, as I said, this a year that it was a transitional season. So we have to build our base and from there we can expect great things.”