ATLANTA – The winning formula for Atlanta United is simple: They like to build the attack out of the back when they have possession, press the opposing team when they don’t and finish chances with ruthless efficiency.
Atlanta were unable to execute on this seemingly straightforward game plan in back-to-back 3-1 losses at the turn of May, the first at home against D.C. United and the second away to New York City FC. But since that game in the Bronx, Atlanta have turned a corner with a solid three-match run of form, starting with a 1-1 draw against the Portland Timbers and last week’s 4-1 defeat of the Houston Dynamo, and continuing with their impressive 3-1 win over NYCFC on Sunday.
Atlanta’s offense continues to be the league’s most potent with 27 goals scored, as well as its most clinical. They needed just seven minutes to score three goals against NYCFC, with Miguel Almiron and Hector “Tito” Villalba converting all three of their combined shots into goals.
Almiron has seven goals on the season from only 14 shots on goal, which explains why Atlanta’s “The Hype Depot” supporters section has taken to chanting: “Miggy Almiron, he scores when he wants, he scores when he wants.”
Atlanta remain near the bottom of the league in total shots with 132, ahead of only D.C. and the Colorado Rapids. ATL UTD sit in the middle of the pack with 55 shots on goal, but they’ve converted 49 percent of these chances, putting them well above Portland, who have the next-highest rate of 40 percent.
Coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s intense, high-press style of play earns possession in dangerous positions in their opponent’s final third, which partly explains why they’ve finished so well this season. Against NYCFC, Atlanta’s front four of Almiron, Villalba, Yamil Asad and Julian Gressel harried City’s backline throughout the first half.
“Our pressure up front was fantastic,” said Parkhurst. “I can’t even count the number of balls [the NYCFC] center backs passed out of bounds and that is rare for them.”
Added Almiron: “[Martino] always asks us to press like that. We were able to have another good showing today. That’s what coach wants from us.”
Almiron’s second goal in the 23rd minute not only put the match away, it also provided a case study of how quickly Atlanta can punish their opponents’ defensive lapses.
Having received a pass deep in his own half, defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz played a long ball to Gressel tearing down the right side. NYCFC defender Alexander Callens got to the ball first, but Gressel won possession back, dribbled down the right side, and played the ball to Almiron’s feet, who one-touched it home with the side of his preferred left foot.
“I was afraid the ref blew the whistle because the fans got so loud I couldn’t really hear anything,” said Gressel after the match. “Thank God I just kept playing, and Miguel made a good run and he was open so I gave it to him and he finished it off.”
As Atlanta look to build on their recent success, they’ll have to do so on the road for the next two weeks. ATL travel to Vancouver to play the Whitecaps on Saturday (5:30 pm ET | TSN in Canada, MLS LIVE in US), and then head to Toyota Park in Chicago on June 10 to play their second match of the season against the Fire.
Atlanta United technical director Carlos Bocanegra says his team’s strategy won’t change, even when they won’t have a full-throated, sold-out home crowd urging them forward.
“The overall objective for us is to play attacking soccer and score goals,” he said. “I think you will see with the formation we put out and the players we have. [Martino] is doing a good job getting them in those formations to be successful, and at the moment, our top players are performing.”
Another top player for Atlanta, forward Josef Martinez, has nearly recovered from a thigh injury he suffered back in March. He trained with the team last week, and he may be back in the 18 as soon as next weekend, giving Martino some difficult personnel decisions to make.
Bocanegra sees that as a positive.
“I think it is a great thing from a club perspective,” he said. “It’s better for us because it creates competition out there on the field for the lineup.”