There was something missing from Atlanta United over the first half of this season, and everybody could see it. It was easy to think back to 2017 and 2018, when they were able to – with such glorious ease – create time and space on the ball, create overloads on one side and then chances on the other, and create goals, goals goals.
Atlanta's approach was slow from the back, stagnant and mechanical through midfield, and eventually utterly predictable in the final third. Up until about the end of June, they were easy to predict and thus easy to stop.
A month ago at the All-Star Game, when Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Pity Martinez opened up about their displeasure over new head coach Frank De Boer's changes to Tata Martino's system, it seemed like this side was close to falling apart. Since then they've played seven and won seven while outscoring their opponents 15-4.
So things have changed. And there will probably be no better example of that change than the first goal in their eventual 2-1 win over visiting Minnesota United on Tuesday night in the 2019 U.S. Open Cup final. It started with a solid defensive play at the back, continued with a right-to-left switch through the midfield, and finished with center back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez underlapping into the box and forcing an own goal.
This is beautiful, unpredictable soccer and Atlanta deserve a ton of credit for it even if the ball ending up in the back of the net was a fluke:
Six minutes later and it was 2-0. Another cup final – their second in two weeks, and yes I'm absolutely counting the Campeones Cup because that game was both intense and awesome – and another win.
My colleague Bobby Warshaw went on a rant a couple of weeks ago that I'll sum up: If you're going to be a SuperClub, you have to carry yourself like a SuperClub. You have to go into each and every chance to win a trophy and act like it's a failure if you don't, in fact, win that trophy.
You have to drop three and celebrate in Club America's face when the opportunity presents, and when a team like Minnesota United shows up in your house... well, Atlanta left more doubt than they should've. The game should've been a coronation given what happened in the first 16 minutes, but given what happened in the second 45, the Loons should feel like they let one get away from them.
That didn't matter during the trophy celebration, and there will be no asterisk in the record books. Atlanta United are champions once again, because that's what big clubs do.
A few notes from the game:
• Adrian Heath made two big moves. The first was switching out of the 4-2-3-1 they've been playing for most of the year and going to a 4-3-3 with Ozzie Alonso at the back point, flanked by Jan Gregus and Hassani Dotson. All three of those guys are more destructive than creative forces, and throwing them together like that... it didn't work in the first half:
So @MattDoyle76 thinks this MNUFC XI is actually a de facto 4-3-3 with Alonso alone at the 6. If you really want to close up shop would've made more sense to me to drop in Dotson+Gregus alongside him - Pity and Barco have been gashing the Loons when they drift between the lines. pic.twitter.com/TT4zgXed0V— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) August 28, 2019
I thought the rotations were a little bit slow. I understand the threat posed by Atlanta's 3-4-2-1, and how necessary it is to keep their creatives out of the half-spaces – you can see on the first goal what happens when you don't – but over-adjusting robbed Minnesota of their defensive solidity.
• The other big gamble Heath took was sitting Darwin Quintero from the kick. I get it: Darwin's lack of defense has been kind of a millstone, and cost the Loons a result last week in Kansas City. But it's a move that's going to come under lots of scrutiny in the local press and amongst the fanbase, because Minnesota without Darwin just don't offer much threat going forward.
• When Atlanta aren't threatened going forward, they push their wingbacks higher and station them in the gap between the opposing fullback and winger whenever they play against a four-man backline. Julian Gressel and Justin Meram got a ton of the ball in the first half, and Meram put Romain Metanire (who was, uh, not at his best out of the gate) directly into the torture chamber.
• Credit to Heath and the Minnesota players for that second-half fightback, which started with a goal from Robin Lod about a minute after play resumed. The biggest change was just playing higher up the pitch and on the front foot, which was a way to capitalize on the adrenaline rush inherent to chasing a result in a cup final.
At the same time, Atlanta clearly thought it was over at the break and barely threatened, then got shook both by Lod's goal, Minnesota's physical play and Gonzalez Pirez's brainless red card.
• That miss at the end will haunt Michael Boxall for a long, long time.