MARIETTA, Ga. — In mid-July, all was not well in the land of the reigning MLS Cup champions.
Atlanta United were mired in a five-game slump since returning from the June international break, claiming just one win in that stretch against a beleaguered Montreal Impact side. In what felt like a must-win match against the Houston Dynamo on July 17, manager Frank de Boer changed the team shape to play with three at the back. Whether it’s notated as a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 is in the eye of the beholder.
The change sparked Atlanta’s best form of the season. With Friday’s Heineken Rivalry Week win at Orlando City, the Five Stripes have now won six of their last seven games in MLS, on top of a Campeones Cup title and a run to Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup final (8 pm ET | ESPN+). Here are four things that have changed for the Five Stripes since the move.
The goals are back
Atlanta were once known as the epicenter of goals and attacking soccer in MLS, with back-to-back 70-goal seasons. But midway through the 2019 season, that acclaim seemed to be fading. In the first 20 games of the league campaign, Atlanta only mustered 28 goals, an average of 1.4 per game. In the seven matches since, Atlanta has scored 18 times, an average of 2.6 goals per game.
"It's always difficult when a new coaching staff comes in with so many new players," Justin Meram told reporters ahead of the Campeones Cup final two weeks ago. "What's the best formation? I think it's just adjusting and growing pains early on.
"Now you're starting to see the way we're playing where everyone's comfortable in it. They know they system and know they're roles and you're starting to see the chances."
The defense is better than ever
It would stand to reason that with increased goal-scoring output and a more attacking mindset, defending would be put on the back burner. Atlanta, in theory, would be more susceptible to leaking goals on the counterattack.
Not only is that not the case, the opposite is true: de Boer’s team is as rock-solid at the back as ever. Since the formation change, the Five Stripes have kept five clean sheets in seven games. When setting aside a 4-3 loss to LAFC at Banc of California Stadium during that stretch, Atlanta have only allowed one other goal in a match: vs. New York City FC, in which they already lead 2-0.
“Sometimes things happen that can have a great influence,” de Boer said after his team’s 3-0 win over the LA Galaxy on Aug. 3. “We had a very unfortunate injury with Brek Shea, for example, so we thought the best option is with three in the back with three good and fast defenders. And suddenly the puzzle looks like, ‘Hey, this could work.’ Everybody feels happy with it.”
Atlanta gain width through wingbacks
The switch to the three-center-back system in recent weeks returns Atlanta to a shape the team had great success in under Tata Martino. It has also coincided with a different approach in the attack.
Using wingbacks, Julian Gressel has returned to his productive self, providing six assists and a goal across the last seven MLS matches (he had three assists in the 20 league games to start the season). On the opposite flank, Meram has proven a revelation, despite playing a wingback role for the first time in his pro career.
“I’ve adapted my style and now, playing as a wingback, I’m facing guys more,” Meram said. “As a winger … I had to be a little bit more creative. Now, if they’re going to come and fly at me, they better win the ball because I’m going to either one-two or move quickly with my first touch.”
Meram’s technical ability on the left side is reminiscent of what Greg Garza brought to the position on Atlanta’s MLS Cup-winning team last season.
ATL’s swagger is back
Heading into Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup final, Atlanta have one big edge over opponents Minnesota United: experience winning trophies and playing in big games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That's already been the case this summer, with a 3-2 win over Club America in the Campeones Cup.
“Winning finals gives you confidence. That’s what comes with winning finals,” attacking midfielder Pity Martinez told media Monday through a translator.
“This is a young club. Some of the guys haven’t won a title yet in their careers. [Florentin] Pogba, for example, that was his first championship. But I think the fact that we beat Club America, one of the best teams from [Latin] America, gives you confidence as a club. We just have to keep working for that.”