It’s like being a kid in a candy store. Except instead of chocolate bars, the shelves are lined with sad facts and questionable tactical decisions. There’s choice overload in writing a piece reacting to Atlanta United’s MLS is Back Tournament entitled “___ Things that Went Wrong For Atlanta United in the MLS is Back Tournament.” Because there are so many things. So. Many. Things.
They range from incredibly obvious, to ... also pretty obvious. There aren’t a lot of things to decode here. And when you don’t even have to dig into the subtext to explain why a failure occurred, it means that it’s pretty apparent to everyone why the failure occurred.
Josef Martinez didn’t show up
Josef Martinez goes down with a torn ACL in Atlanta's first game of the season against Nashville SC. | USA Today Sports Images
Because he was hurt. Unfortunately for Atlanta, other teams are missing their best player and seem to be ok. LAFC, a club that Atlanta United certainly sees themself in the same stratosphere with and that is missing 2019 MVP Carlos Vela, has scored nine goals, and eight have come from their front three. Plenty of other teams found ways to score without Josef Martinez in this tournament. In fact ... all of them have. Every single team but Atlanta scored without Josef Martinez in this tournament. So maybe this should start with …
Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco weren't game-changers
Atlanta’s two other DP’s were always going to be tasked with carrying the brunt of the attacking load in Josef’s absence. For them, the tournament presented a tremendous opportunity for the pair to remind European teams of their abilities. Instead, they struggled. But they’ve never been players who’ve shown they can consistently take over a game. Barco has shown flashes, but both have always been supplements to an attack whose only piece capable of doing sustained damage was Josef. Fancy, largely effective (and expensive) handles that helped Atlanta wield their Josef-tipped spear. This tournament showed a spear without a point. Which makes it a big, fancy stick.
Of course, Atlanta could have maybe swung that stick and bludgeoned someone over the head, but no one else on the team did much to help Barco and Pity. So maybe this should start with …
Nobody played well…
Not a single player. A couple of players had passable tournaments. Signs from George Bello and Miles Robinson were encouraging, but they also struggled at times. I’m sure there were bright moments from other players, but nothing that could be seen through a dense fog of disinterested play.
The best performance all tournament came from Brad Guzan in the press conference following Atlanta’s third loss of the tournament, against Columbus Crew on Tuesday. He didn’t mince words about the current status of every player that touched the field.
“There's gotta be some sort of change on the field," he said. "There's gotta be communication, there's gotta be conversations, but then there has to be a response to that. It can't just be talk, talk, talk, and then get back on the field and do the same thing that we've been doing,” Guzan said. “Because this didn’t just happen in one game. This just happened now for four games. And it's not good enough. It's not good enough as individuals. It's not good enough as a group.”
As good as it is to hear about redoubling of efforts, there’s genuine concern about the overall makeup of this team. Maybe the talent isn’t there after an exodus of key players. So maybe this should start with …
Darlington Nagbe, Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez, Julian Gressel, Michael Parkhurst and Tito Villalba didn’t show up
Darlington Nagbe in action for Columbus Crew against Atlanta United on July 21, 2020. | Devin L'Amoreaux and Matthew Stith
Because they all left the club this offseason. Well, Darlington Nagbe was there, but for the team that beat Atlanta last night. All he did was control the midfield and complete 43 of 43 passes.
It’s unsurprising then that the replacements haven’t hinted at matching Nagbe’s production, but they certainly haven’t looked like apt replacements for any of the others either.
But, to be fair, you have to set up the players to succeed. So maybe this should start with …
The tactics were bad
I’m not a tactician. I’ve read Inverting the Pyramid. Didn’t get it. So smarter people than me will have deeper thoughts on this. But it’s so clear that nothing was clicking, that even I could understand there were issues in every facet of the game and I skipped chapter 48 of Inverting the Pyramid.
No one looked comfortable. No one looked like they ... knew what the plan was. The defense got caught napping, the attack could barely work the ball in the box. It got dark. But this team has felt different for a while. And not in a good way. So maybe this should start with…
The team culture has changed for the worse…
“After the first game we talked about playing for this club means and that when you step on the field with an Atlanta United crest on your shirt, you're not just representing the club, you representing the city of Atlanta and representing all of our fans," Guzan said.
"We set the bar so high over the last couple of years. You can talk about experienced players, you know, but there's also inexperienced players on the field and it's the role of experienced players to help those guys along. It's the role of those younger players to pick up information quickly. There's a huge level of frustration, disappointment, anger, because this isn't what Atlanta United is about. This isn't who we are as a club. It's not a good feeling in the locker room at the minute.”
Right now, it seems like this is a team lacking clear leadership and direction. And that is just right now. This club obviously knows how to be successful. And a few wins can change a lot. But this team went to Orlando and presented the worst of itself. And until Guzan stepped up at the press conference, it seemed to lack accountability within its own ranks. Which, to be fair is tough to have when you’re missing one of your most vocal presences. So maybe this should start with…
Josef Martinez didn’t show up
Uh …. uh-oh. This is going to be a long one.
Atlanta may have a lot to work through.