Atlanta United heads into Matchday 13 with its focus set on returning to its best form. Saturday’s 3-1 loss against Charlotte FC marked Atlanta’s first home loss at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and third consecutive loss of the MLS season after starting the year 5-1-3 (W-L-T).
Despite the past few weeks, the team remains confident in its abilities and plans to earn points in the next two matches. The 5-Stripes have an opportunity to regain momentum at home against Colorado Rapids on Wednesday before traveling to Soldier Field for the second matchup of the season against Chicago Fire FC on Saturday.
Head coach Gonzalo Pineda and goalkeeper Quentin Westberg spoke with media on Tuesday about what challenges the team has been facing and how to overcome them in their next matches.
Finding their urgency
In Saturday’s post-game conference, Pineda said Atlanta’s level of intensity was lacking compared to Charlotte, but he corrected himself on Tuesday that it was the urgency rather, that was missing in their attack. He said that after watching film, he noticed Atlanta was not matching Charlotte’s urgency, especially inside the box.
“It’s not that there is no effort or there is no intensity,” Pineda said, “it’s that lack of urgency that I see in the opponent, and they wanted it a little bit more.”
“We need to try to play with the same type of urgency, whether it’s attacking or defending,” he added. “They put a lot of numbers inside the box; we need to put also a lot of numbers inside the box and be more patient in how we attack more dangerous areas.”
Atlanta started strong in Saturday’s match with three early chances they were unable to convert. However, Charlotte’s goals and defender Andrew Gutman’s red card that left the team with 10 men for nearly half the match created a lull in Atlanta’s attack. Pineda said the energy didn’t pick back up until subs entered the game and Juanjo Purata scored in the 86th minute.
“It’s very easy to show urgency when you are down a goal or down a man,” Pineda said. “It’s about getting the same urgency that we showed after the third goal and being a man down, [Giakoumakis] enters the game, and then suddenly it felt like we could have gotten a second goal, and then we had some momentum to score a fantastic goal again in the last minute of the game. Can we show that when we’re 11v11?”
Pineda noted that finding their urgency early will be key in their upcoming matches. Atlanta has won or tied every game they scored first this season; they’re 1-4-1 when scoring second.
“Numbers and stats say the team that scores first has way more opportunities to win, so it’s about that urgency to start on the front foot,” Pineda said.
Battling back against strong opponents
Saturday’s match was the second meeting of the season between Atlanta and Charlotte. In the first matchup, Atlanta won 3-0 on the road. Saturday’s match will be the second against Chicago, a team that Atlanta beat 2-1 last month.
Westberg said Tuesday that the way Atlanta started this season has encouraged opponents to come out strong against them. He said Atlanta must play at their best in every game going forward because teams know their capabilities, especially those they see multiple times a year like those in the Eastern Conference.
“Playing so well, it creates fear on the one hand, and then every team brings their A-game here thinking they’re in danger,” Westberg said. “The natural response when you’re in danger, you are more aware and usually level up or have an extraordinary performance.
“The idea that we're an overwhelming team is very much present,” Westberg added, “and the opponents adapt to that now and they get ready to that. On our side, it's understanding that patience is key and sticking to our principles.”
Atlanta’s recent opponents have come out aggressively; they’ve outscored Atlanta 8-3 in the last three matches. Pineda said the team shouldn’t hang their head on those goals but should remain focused to prevent those goals in the future.
“I think our concentration, understanding the roles, individual mistakes, we know we have to do better,” Pineda said. “The last eight goals we have conceded, the big majority are solvable calls, penalties and some duels I feel we can do better.”
Things to tweak
Both Pineda and Westberg said no formation changes or major adjustments need to be made in order to emerge from their slump. Instead, they said the team must make tweaks to its mentality and style of play and stay composed during certain moments of the match.
“Understanding when we need to be patient and when we need to be in full control, that’s the tricky part,” Westberg said. “We want to be front-footed, and we want to be in the opponent’s box or in the opponent’s final third for most of the game, but when you’re 0-0 after 30 minutes, you’re alright. It’s not like the game is out of hand or out of control, and even at 0-1, it’s still very much manageable.”
Westberg also echoed Pineda’s earlier statement that the team tends to get bursts of energy at the end of matches. Atlanta didn’t pull out the win in their last meeting against Chicago until a goal in the 99th minute.
“It’s adapting and understanding that we can’t rely or expect a 95th minute goal to win us a game,” Westberg said. “It’s the attention, and the intent, and the commitment and being totally purposeful in what we do that is going to win this game.”
Return of veteran voices
Over the last two seasons, Atlanta has run into injuries to key veterans like goalkeeper Brad Guzan (Achilles and MCL) and midfielder Ozzie Alonso (ACL). Striker Giorgos Giakoumakis has missed games and had restricted minutes recently due to a hamstring injury.
Fortunately, all three have returned to training in the past few weeks, bringing back with them the leadership that Pineda said the team needs right now.
“That voice, Ozzie we hear in the Rondos, Brad in the locker room talking to them,” Pineda said. “The more the veterans are involved with the first team, I think the better because they know, they’ve been through these periods many times, so they know what to do.”