After a promising first half, Atlanta United lit a match and set fire to their MLS Cup Playoff hopes at Yankee Stadium on Sunday.
Two quick and truly bizarre NYCFC set-piece goals from Taty Castellanos and Alexander Callens unraveled the good work put in by the Five Stripes in the opening 45 minutes.
But given the truly chaotic nature of their 2021 season, you didn't expect Atlanta United to go down quietly, did you? Vapor lock or a flat tire wasn't going to kill them. If they were going down in New York, they were putting their foot to the floor and crashing, as hard as possible.
There have been myriad positives since Gonzalo Pineda (and Rob Valentino) took charge, and the fact Atlanta even made the post-season is a miracle and testament to their good work, considering they'd won just two of their 13 games and were seven points below the Playoff line when Gabriel Heinze lost his job.
But Sunday's match, and many before it, left food for thought on where this team goes next, and where it must improve to once again become a true MLS Cup challenger.
Shall we get into the weeds?
1. Connections and cohesion
For all their possession and slick play through the press - in the first half, especially - Atlanta United ended Sunday's match with just 0.3 xG from four shots on target. Only three of their nine total attempted shots came inside the box and two of those were from center-back, Alan Franco.
This was largely because of a complete breakdown in functionality between the front four of Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, Marcelino Moreno, and Luiz Araujo.
For all their considerable talent, this quartet haven't connected anywhere near as well as supporters would have hoped. On Sunday, Martinez and Araujo exchanged just five passes, Araujo and Barco seven, Martinez and Moreno 10, and Araujo and Moreno six. Unless one of the four goes for a hail mary, things just seem to break down.
“I think on paper when you look at our team, we’ve got fantastic players in terms of the ability, the individual brilliance that guys can create in a moment literally out of nothing can create something fantastic for us," team captain and goalkeeper Brad Guzan noted after the match.
"With that being said, we need to be able to do it more collectively and more consistently. I think in terms of understanding that it may not be Marcelino (Moreno) having to create a moment of brilliance or (Ezequiel) Barco a moment of brilliance or Josef (Martinez) popping up late in a game and finding something for us. There needs to be more of an attacking edge consistently."
This isn't a new problem. Atlanta United have scored more than two goals in a single match on just five occasions all season, and three of those came back-to-back in mid-September.
Ezequiel Barco is likely to depart this offseason. Whether or not that makes the picture clearer for Pineda remains to be seen, but it'll certainly force some sort of change. Perhaps adding some more progression and balance to the midfield in Barco's absence could help bring the forward line into play and sustain pressure in the opposition's final third.
2. Back-up for Josef Martinez
We're not going to talk about Atlanta United needing back-up for Josef Martinez in the wider context or if the Venezuela international picks up an injury. That's been done so many times already.
But what we will do is analyze it in the context of a big-game situation.
Against NYCFC on Sunday, Martinez touched the ball just 22 times, the least of any outfield player. That's absolutely dreadful for your biggest attacking threat and one of the deadliest strikers in league history. Even with that limited service, Martinez still forced a good save from Sean Johnson with only half a look at goal on the hour mark.
The narrow pitch at Yankee Stadium magnified an existing problem with this team; Martinez all too often looks alone on an island.
Some of that can be put down to the latter point about the Five Stripes' lack of cohesion in attack. But on Sunday, with width almost impossible, Martinez needed someone close to him to connect with. Someone to play quick one-touch passes with and dovetail off of to disrupt the NYCFC backline. In short, it was crying out for a second striker to get close to the Venezuelan, rather than replacing him altogeher.
Cubo Torres isn't that guy, and Jackson Conway doesn't seem to have won the faith of any manager that's come through the club recently. Perhaps some value could be picked up on the MLS free agency market? The likes of Max Urruti, Fafa Picault, and Teal Bunbury could be available, to name a few. In a league with the complicated roster rules of MLS, this is an area where options can be found at a fraction of the usual budget spend.
3. Mentality, concentration, and experience
After Sunday's match, Pineda spoke often of how pleased he is at Atlanta United's mentality. In the sense of their togetherness, that's been absolutely right since he and Valentino took over.
But in the context of being able to see out a game or coming through adversity, this team still leaves much to be desired. Too many times, the Five Stripes have collapsed late in games or hit the canvas after a quick one-two.
Perhaps this is down to a basic lack of experience. After all, Atlanta United have the third-lowest average age (24.4) in MLS this season according to Transfermarkt. They're one of just two teams in the bottom five to even make the Playoffs alongside the New York Red Bulls - neither went beyond Round One.
After signing a contract extension, technical director Carlos Bocanegra revealed that signing players with MLS experience will be one of the priorities this offseason. Something Guzan agrees with, too.
"I’ve always said this league is unique. You guys know it, I know it, we know it. It’s unique," he said on Sunday. "You look back at the year we were successful, you look at other successful MLS teams around the league and there seems to be a common denominator of MLS experience, MLS guys that understand what games are all about, understand what it takes to win postseason games."
In the past couple of years alone, Atlanta United have seen the likes of Michael Parkhurst, Jeff Larentowicz, and Darlington Nagbe leave - all foundational pieces of their 2018 and 2019 successes, but left unreplaced in terms of their vast experience in this league.
It feels like this team still has its training wheels on and, just as it was prior to their inaugural 2017 campaign, it'll be up to Bocanegra, Darren Eales, and Co to flesh the roster out with veterans who know how to get it done.
Small fixes, but ones that could turn this group of individual talents into a serious team in 2022.