Here are three key takeaways from a game that saw Josef Martinez return to ATLUTD's starting lineup and the defending MLS Cup champions stay unbeaten in six games.
A lot of the focus will be on Atlanta after this game simply because they’re in a transition moment and people want to know where the story is going. Columbus are simply a good team that does good things that good teams do. Except, that is, usually win on the road.
Go back and look at their road record last season. Remember? The year they won MLS Cup? Zero road wins in 10 games (0-5-5 record). None. This year, they’d lost three, drew another three and picked up one win against New York City FC at Red Bull Arena. They just haven't been as good away from Lower.com Field or, before that, Historic Crew Stadium.
Then on Saturday, they trotted out a lineup missing multiple key players due to injury, international duty and general rest. They still picked up a win. That’s huge. Especially for a team that’s had more difficulty than most creating chances this season. If they can do it on the road without Gyasi Zardes, Luis Diaz and Milton Valenzuela among others, plus Lucas Zelarayan taking a half off, it’s probably going to help them feel even more confident as those guys again enter the lineup.
Maybe most importantly, the Crew created 1.6 expected goals worth of chances. And if we’re praising Atlanta for creating 1.7 xG-worth of chances, we need to praise the Crew for improving on their chance-creation struggles with a depleted lineup. They did it by sitting deep for most of the game in a 4-4-2, more than happy to hit in transition. In the end, they did what they needed to and Jonathan Mensah scored on a clever set-piece. They should have been rewarded in open play, too.
All that considered, Caleb Porter kindly asks that people like me kindly put some more respect on the Crew’s name.
“I don't care what people think, honestly. That's no disrespect to what people think. I respect everybody's opinions and I think it's great for our game that people have opinions. I think it's great that people write articles and do the power rankings and all that. I look at a lot of some of those things and wonder sometimes if anybody actually watches the games and really looks at the lineups and looks [at] who's out,” Porter said.
“When you are the champion the last season, people look for holes in you. Instead of talking about us being the best defensive team and the fact that we've lost one game in 10 and we've got five wins and four draws, instead of talking about that, they'll talk about why we're not scoring more goals. They always look for the negative and that's because when you're good, the tallest tree the wind blows the strongest against. So when you're the tallest tree, people try to chop you down and, yeah, I don't agree with it all. At the end of the day, we have Artur out, Gyasi out, Luis Diaz, we have Josh Williams out, we have Milton Valenzuela. So I don't know if anybody ever even looks at that and I don't care if they do, to be honest with you.
“Our focus is on winning games, our group has never fought harder. We've never been tougher. You look at what we've gone through in terms of guys being out and some of the guys playing that are frankly third-string guys to start the season and they're playing like they're first-team guys and starters. So, yeah, once we get everybody in and once we get Gyasi back and Luis Diaz back and some of these guys, then, yeah, we'll be able to be a bit more fluid. But you can't talk about potential when you have that many guys out. And so I think they should start celebrating the good things about our team.”
Atlanta didn’t get the win, but my goodness it’s remarkable to see them try and score again. Genuinely. They became so hesitant toward the end of Gabriel Heinze’s tenure to do anything but play crosses into the box to non-Josef Martinez players who were often double-covered. You didn’t even have to check the box score to know that they had created around 0.5 xG worth of chances each game.
All of this comes at the encouragement of interim manager Rob Valentino. He’s been with the club in some capacity since their MLS Cup-winning season in 2018. Now that he’s been put in charge, Atlanta are slowly tweaking and shifting their way back into a mentality and tactical philosophy far more reminiscent of Tata Martino than Frank de Boer or Gabriel Heinze.
Some of those shifts are a little more complicated and difficult to explain succinctly. The main one is not: The team is actively trying to score again.
Soccer is hard. Sometimes, it’s not as hard as we make it out to be. Over the last two games, ATLUTD have simply looked more comfortable sending numbers forward and getting into the box. That’s been the biggest and most crucial difference. So it’s not surprising when you have Valentino and multiple players mentioning the word “risk” post-game, along with accepting everything that comes with that.
They’re willing to accept the risk of getting numbers forward and into the box and dribbling the ball into dangerous areas for a couple of reasons. First, just like Brooks Lennon said postgame, it’s just a more fun and engaging game to be involved in. Second, they believe in Valentino and are willing to change in any way he asks of them.
“I believe all it will take is one or two wins and momentum will shift very quickly,” center back Anton Walkes said. “Especially with Rob being here and just how open he is with us. Guys have a smile on their face every day now and everything’s a bit more energized here with Rob. I think he knows everybody even better than even what our previous manager did. It’s just mutual respect we’ve got for him. We want to fight for him a little bit more because he is a great guy. He’s a great person and a great human being and we owe it to him right now.
“He’s been here and he’s seen what it’s like to work under coaches like, for example, Tata. He was there when the team had its success, so he knows our philosophy and the blueprint. And again, like I said, the relationships he has with players. We’ve got that type of respect for him. He knows what he’s doing. Before he even had the main role, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone work harder for him at the club. I believe in him and he believes in us and he knows the quality we have and he just wants us to go out and express ourselves.”
All of this, coupled with a fan base still showing up in numbers despite recent results and celebrities like...uh...Kanye West (no really) almost made today feel like the oldest and best version of Atlanta United. Sometimes when you get back to basics, everyone from the crowd to the players to the media feels more engaged. Good things will come if Atlanta keep this up.
There are rewards and risks that come with pushing numbers forward. Columbus were able to routinely hit in transition, and although it was a corner kick that finally pushed the Crew through, they could have had a couple from open play. However, that’s a risk Atlanta are willing to take. For all the reasons I mentioned above, they’re willing to take those risks. Tata’s team’s did.
The problem now is figuring out how to make that risk truly matter. The Five Stripes just don’t have enough quality in attack right now to seriously trouble teams, even when they’re creating chances. Josef is the only player with the finishing ability to truly make an impact, and it’s hard to do that when you’re constantly being double-teamed. Even for Josef.
This team isn’t that far away from pushing for a playoff spot. But more competition is needed on the wings an--oh, well hey, would you look at that…