FULLERTON, Calif. – Atlanta United have thrilled (or greatly pained, depending on allegiances) MLS fans the past two years with an explosive, freewheeling attack unlike anything the league had seen.
Now they're getting defensive, or at least more so.
New head coach Frank de Boer's emphasis during the Five Stripes' preseason camp at Cal State Fullerton has been on what to do when they don't have the ball, and how to propel that into making MLS's best offensive team even better.
“We're playing a variation of the system we played last year,” said defender and captain Michael Parkhurst. “So not everything's completely new, but definitely some things out of our starting positions [on the field] are a little bit new. When he wants us to press and when he doesn't and how he wants guys to rotate; it's a little bit more zone-oriented than man-to-man. Little things that we still need to get used to. After every game, we watch a little bit of film, see a couple things we didn't do well or how he wants to do it different.”
Our unbeaten preseason goes on 🌧🔥 pic.twitter.com/hWXpZyQRmp— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) February 11, 2019
Midfielder Julian Gressel said that de Boer, brought on board in December after Tata Martino departed to take charge of Mexico's national team, “still wants us to attack, but he knows that starts with us being tight defensively and being able to defend well so that we can win the ball a lot more often and have the ball a lot more often.”
The longtime Dutch national-team center back has a tighter structure than Martino employed in Atlanta’s first two seasons, and players are having to adjust to new roles as the team prepare for their first campaign without Miguel Almiron.
“The mindset has been a lot more on defensive shape and how we want to defend as a team, and we want to do that,” Gressel said. “But he's still an offensive-minded coach, wants us to attack and have the ball as long as possible.”
One feeds the other, says De Boer.
“What we try to do, especially when we don't have the ball, everybody knows exactly what he has to do and the responsibility for that,” he said ahead of Atlanta United's 2-2 draw Sunday afternoon against LAFC. “To not get surprised when we are defense. I think I have the feeling, like a 5-4-1 formation when we don't have the ball, but that doesn't mean we are playing negative. If you are good in defense, you are taking more, so that's our philosophy.
“If we can make the transition when we don't have the ball and all of a sudden we have the ball and in three seconds we're in front of the goal, you know we have to use that explosive quality we have in the team.”
The Five Stripes have scored 140 goals in two seasons, 25 more than anyone else and surpassed in league annals only by D.C. United's 144 two decades earlier. Josef Martinez, the primary finisher, is back with a new five-year contract, but Almiron – the on-field architect – has taken off for Newcastle United, so things aren't going to be the same.
“We played five in the back today. We played five in the back last year, too,” Parkhurst noted after last week's 6-1 rout of Club Tijuana at Titan Stadium. “Just from there forward, it's a little bit different. Of course, we don't have Miguel out there free-roaming and doing what he wants to put pressure on the [opposing] defense. [Ezequiel] Barco and Pity [Martinez] and [Hector] Villalba can do those things, but it's a little bit more structured in that sense.”
Pity Martinez, the reigning South American player of the year, is the de facto replacement for Almiron after arriving from River Plate, but they are very different players. Martinez doesn't have Almiron's pace and won't have the kind of freedom that Almiron enjoyed. The attack will take on new dimensions.
“Pity is going to fill [that role] a little different. He has other qualities,” de Boer said. “Almiron had a fantastic feeling with Josef, but what I saw already right now, [Pity] has it already now with Josef. Normally, I always say, quality players, they feel that with each other and you see that they like to play with each other.”