Atlanta United

The 'little details' costing Atlanta United huge points

Chris Smith
Gonzalo Pineda is trying to put things right in Atlanta.
Gonzalo Pineda is trying to put things right in Atlanta. / Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It's every head coach's worst nightmare; spending weeks and months working on defending set-pieces, only to concede from one inside the opening minute.

Within 56 seconds of their match at home to the Columbus Crew on Saturday, Atlanta United had kicked off, cheaply surrendered possession, conceded a corner, and allowed a goal.

That sequence of events perfectly sums up Atlanta United over the past couple of months. A team packed full of talent - albeit decimated by injuries - making fundamental errors and just switching off.

Of their 20 goals conceded so far across the 2022 MLS season, only nine have been from open play, with seven allowed from set-pieces, three from counter-attacks, and one from the penalty spot. The Five Stripes rank third and second in the league, respectively, for the former two.

If you thought fans were getting frustrated by Atlanta's seeming lack of ability to carry out basic defending inside their own box, head coach Gonzalo Pineda is tearing his hair out seeing so much hard work in training thrown to waste.

"We are not paying attention to those little details," he said after Saturday's 2-1 defeat. "Starting with the kickoff - instead of putting them under pressure, we gave the ball away, and then we are under pressure at home, where we should be putting them under pressure, not us."

For Jonathan Mensah's opener, Atlanta look comfortably set in their own six-yard box. But a slight movement from the center-back helps him lose marker Matheus Rossetto, while none of the defenders marking zonally react or make a serious attempt to attack the ball. Goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth hesitates and, in the end, positions himself to neither claim the ball or make a save.

"Obviously, the corner was maybe a poor decision, with poor marking, and references," Pineda observed. Seeking to shoulder some responsibility, he added: "That's also on us. Like, it is not the players, I'm not complaining about the players. I am with them and I will reflect on what we can do better."

The problem for Atlanta is Pineda has been he so many times already across the past couple of months, promising more work on the training ground after fundamental errors have cost his team cheap goals.

The Mexican head coach and his staff are working as hard as they possibly can. And, as mentioned, losing key defensive leaders like Brad Guzan, Miles Robinson, and Ozzie Alonso to long-term injuries certainly hasn't helped.

But the remaining defenders - including former DP center-back Alan Franco, USMNT right-back Brooks Lennon, and immensely experienced goalkeeper Shuttleworth - should still have enough quality to perform basic defending inside their own 18.

Instead, Atlanta seem to find the 'off' switch at least once per match, lacking basic concentration. When they make mistakes, the Five Stripes are punished to the maximum, and Pineda believes this is placing too much pressure on his star-studded attack to perform at the other end.

In the Mexican's own words, Atlanta United need 'perfect games' to pick up wins. And this team is producing nowhere near perfection right now.

"We work a lot on these things. It's not like we don't do the work. It's just the attention during games - in those moments is not happening. And we need to do perfect games to get three points," Pineda said.

He continued: "It feels like we have to take more chances. We have to create more chances. We have to have more possession because it feels bad after a good performance like today. I feel we had a good performance in the sense that we created enough chances to win the game. We did everything there, but we did not put enough attention when the score is zero-zero."

To an extent, Pineda has a point. Atlanta United outshot the Crew 22-9 on the day, generating 2.07 xG compared to just 0.80 from the hosts. Luiz Araujo was particularly dangerous, attempting four shots and creating four chances.

But although they could have been level by half-time, Atlanta was once again caught out shortly before the break, cut open by a single long ball that left Alex De John isolated in a one-on-one battle with Erik Hurtado that he was never going to win.

With Josef Martinez introduced for the second half, accompanied by a change of system, Atlanta naturally started piling pressure on Columbus. But they only really pinned their opponents against the walls in the closing minutes and that urgency - as well as Dom Dwyer's bicycle kick consolation goal - came way too late.

It shouldn't take a couple of punches to the face to spring a team into action.

"When we are not urgent, when we are not losing, it seems we don't really pay attention to those little details," Pineda said. "We need to reemphasize that in the training session. We always play as we train and we will make sure that in the next few weeks, we train very hard on that.”

Atlanta United now have an extended break before they host Inter Miami on June 19. Once again, Pineda will take to the training ground and attempt to use that time to cut out defensive errors and improve concentration within his ranks.

With the Five Stripes slipping down to 10th in the Eastern Conference, the penny must drop soon to avoid falling out of MLS Cup Playoff contention.