Alec Kann - Atlanta United - Under pressure
USA Today Sports

Brisendine: Atlanta loss points up struggles in building out of the back

If last weekend's 3-1 home victory over Columbus Crew SC served as a reboarding call for the Atlanta United hype train, Wednesday night's 2-1 away loss to D.C. United might make you want to wait on the platform until the last car's about to clear.

It's not just that Atlanta have dropped both of their games against D.C. this year, although that definitely plays into things. Good teams – the kind that qualify for the postseason, much less make deep runs – don't play down against struggling teams, especially not against a side with a league-low 12 goals this season.

The real concern – the ongoing problem that Atlanta need to solve if their fans' expansion-year dreams are to have any hope of coming true – is that while the club are almost embarrassingly loaded in the attack, getting that attack started from the defensive third under pressure from an opposing side remains a weakness.

That's not such an issue when the Designated Player trio of Hector Villalba, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez are all clicking as a unit, as they were against Crew SC. Wednesday night was another matter, as Atlanta United kept finding themselves in trouble when they tried to build out of the back.

That was never more apparent than on the sequence of events leading up to Luciano Acosta's 23rd-minute equalizer for D.C., just six minutes after Atlanta's Julian Gressel opened the scoring in the 17th. Much will be made of Atlanta goalkeeper Alec Kann slipping and playing the ball right to Acosta under pressure, but the real trouble for the visitors started well before that.

D.C.'s Ian Harkes put a shot over the bar, giving Atlanta a goal kick. For teams that don't build out of the back, that's a signal for everyone to move up the pitch. For teams that do, it's a sign for the fullbacks to get into position to take the ball on either flank and get things going.

That's what Atlanta tried to do, Kann playing his goal kick out to the right corner and then putting the return ball up the middle on the ground. Trouble was, D.C. were already pressing hard against the short game and Atlanta couldn't get anything going. So defender Michael Parkhurst tried to play it back to Kann – and, boom, equalizer.

That was the most egregious example, but it wasn't the only one – a fullback's ball sprayed out of bounds here, an errant short goal kick there. Atlanta never really looked confident under pressure with the ball in their own end – not uniformly awful, but never really good. And judging by the way they kept setting up for goal kicks, with multiple players near their own penalty area, it doesn't look as though that part of the game plan is subject to change based on results.

Maybe it will, when Brad Guzan – as everyone expects him to do – takes over for Kann in goal. But if it doesn't, and Atlanta still struggle to beat the high press when they're in possession – well, at least you'll have more room to spread out and get comfortable on that hype train.

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