When describing Atlanta United’s style of play, a few words often come to mind.
Attacking. Dynamic. Fast. Exciting.
Descriptors that, as it turns out, mostly relate to offense. And it’s true, Atlanta United’s identity has always been about pushing the ball forward. The scouting department seeks players who can do just that – play on the front foot. The goal of the front office is to put players on the pitch who have speed and a killer instinct in the attacking third. The club brings in players like Josef Martínez and Ezequiel Barco who can push the ball forward and score goals.
So what does it mean, in a scheme that hinges on moving the ball forward, for the team’s defensive players?
“When you look at how we want to play as a group, how we want to play as a team, what our identity is as a club, we’re certainly an attack-minded team and a team with exciting players going forward,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “With that being said, obviously as a defensive position and as a defensive player, as well as the backline and maybe some of our midfielders, we need to try and give them a base to be able to go win the game for us.”
That base starts with Atlanta’s center backs. The most stalwart player at that position is Miles Robinson, the 24-year-old out of Syracuse. Robinson was Atlanta United’s first SuperDraft pick in club history back in 2017 and has played four seasons with the club.
Even with dynamic attacking players, it's a credit to the well-roundedness of the team that Atlanta boasts one of the best defenders in MLS on its roster. On top of being selected to the MLS All-Star Game, becoming a mainstay on the backline for the U.S. men’s national team, and being named to the MLS Best XI, Robinson was named one of three finalists for MLS Defender of the Year – making 2021 the most prolific season of his burgeoning career.
“It was pretty crazy, honestly,” Robinson said. “Looking back, it was filled with ups and downs. A lot of things happened, especially for me in general, a lot of great things. Overall, it was definitely a year to remember.”
Joining Robinson on the backline as the other primary center back for Atlanta was Alan Franco. Franco is newer to the club than his counterpart, joining the club in April 2021 via transfer from Club Atletico Independiente in his native country of Argentina, but the 25-year-old has steadily become a reliable presence on the backline. Since arriving to Atlanta, he started 24 out of 26 possible matches, playing a full 90 in 19 of those games.
“Honestly it was a great season, demanding on the personal side,” Franco said. “Demanding because since I arrived, I had to work hard to be on this first team. Truthfully, everything was great – there were difficult moments and good moments.”
Even after recording fewer minutes, Franco led the team in interceptions (77) and percentage of dribblers tackled out of any Atlanta player who made over 35 attempts (51.4 percent). He ranked second on the team in both players tackled (51) and successful pressures (113). On the season, he completed over 90 percent of his passes, also one of the best on the team.
“He’s definitely a passionate player,” Robinson said of Franco. “He’s always fighting for the guys in front of him. But we’ve grown to play with each other and know how each other like to play, so it’s been good.”
As Franco’s role on the team increased during the season, he and Robinson learned how to work together. Even though they speak different languages – Spanish for Franco, English for Robinson – the two central defenders were able to communicate clearly and lead Atlanta to 10 clean sheets, tied with Seattle Sounders for fourth-best in the league.
“I think on the pitch, we understand each other much better than the day-to-day because English complicates things for us,” Franco said. “But on the pitch, we understand each other with signs and speaking sometimes.”
“I think once you play together every single day, you still kind of know what each other’s saying and what each other wants from one another,” Robinson echoed. “It’s easier than you think.”
On an attack-minded team, the backline plays an even more key role. It’s where the attack begins, players on the backline getting the ball and pushing players forward. The central defenders create a stable base to allow the two wingbacks, most often Brooks Lennon and George Bello, to use their speed to run up and down the flanks and transition easily between offense and defense.
But it all starts with getting the ball, and in 2021 Atlanta’s backline was successful in that aspect. The club finished with a duel percentage of 54.6 percent, winning more duels than any other team in the league. Both Robinson and Franco are listed at six feet or taller, which creates a dominating presence in the air – and a good reason why, on the year, Atlanta ranked as one of the best in MLS at headed duel percentage (51.4 percent).
“We’re definitely a team that likes to play out of the back, so we have to be confident on the ball,” Robinson said. “But also, we have to be dialed in and in touch with the game every second and every moment because there’s plenty of counter-attack opportunities when we push so many numbers forward.”
It certainly helps Franco and Robinson to have a seasoned veteran in the back to lean on. Guzan has played professionally for 16 seasons, five of those with Atlanta United. And at 37 years old, Guzan’s experience and skill is a big reason why Atlanta United was able to record double-digit clean sheets in 2021 and rank first in MLS in saves percentage at 79.6 percent.
“As a goalkeeper, your job is to save the ball,” Guzan said. “Your job is to keep the ball out of the back of the net. And those moments, when you’re able to come up with a big save, especially late on in a game and help the team get a result, for me those are the most satisfying saves.”
At key points in the season, Guzan came up with big saves late in games. He made a twitchy stop against Inter Miami on Oct. 27 that secured three points for Atlanta United during a pivotal point in the team’s playoff push. Then, he came up with a crucial save on a 1-v-1 opportunity against the New York Red Bulls on Nov. 3 to preserve the scoreless draw, a positive result for Atlanta in a difficult environment.
In September, Guzan tied a career-high and made eight saves against Philadelphia Union. He had seven saves twice in 2021, including the 1-1 draw against Toronto FC in the regular home season finale on Oct. 30.
“There were a few probably late on where I was probably a little bit more lucky than good, and sometimes as a goalkeeper you need that,” Guzan said.
As a team captain, Guzan has played the role as a vocal leader not only for the backline but for a young squad. When players were asked which teammate they’ve learned the most from, Guzan clearly won the vote, especially among the defensive players.
“I’m always learning from him, so it’s great to have a true leader back there,” Robinson said.
“I think he’s the one who tells us what to do all the time,” Franco echoed. “He talks to us all the time and that’s also a great thing as well.”
The defensive players for Atlanta not only want to make stops and get the ball to their playmakers, they also want to get involved in the attack. During the 4-0 rout against FC Cincinnati on Sept. 15, Franco became the first Atlanta United player ever to record three assists in the same game. And on Decision Day, Robinson scored his first career MLS goal on a header. The score equalized the match and eventually helped Atlanta United lock up a spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
It speaks to the team’s cohesion under head coach Gonzalo Pineda that the backline has a strong understanding of the team’s identity. The group knows their role is to keep Atlanta moving forward – both on the pitch and in the table.
“Of course we need 11 guys to defend, 11 guys to attack, it takes everyone,” Guzan said. “But our job is then to try and give those guys a base to be able to go and win us the game and do what they do and be exciting, attacking players.”