At this stage of the MLS season, we can confidently place a group of five teams at the top of the Eastern Conference hierarchy:
Other playoff contenders — notably the Montreal Impact, Toronto FC, Orlando City SC and the New England Revolution — will hang around, but the existing group of five will be tough to challenge.
To handicap the race, let’s take a look at each of the East elites, including what they do well and poorly and how they’ve played in recent weeks.
DCU sit second in the Eastern Conference, barely a nick ahead of a threatening group of three — Atlanta, NYRB, and NYCFC. D.C. are in danger are falling further behind.
Even as they stick around in the upper tier in the conference, it grows harder and harder to proclaim them as legitimate contenders. They’ve won just twice in their last 10 games.
Luciano Acosta is suspended currently for a red card, and has generally taken a step back from last season’s ascent to stardom. They haven’t scored at the rate most expected despite Wayne Rooney’s continued excellence.
By the time Acosta is transferred elsewhere (which seems like an inevitability, whether this window or next), D.C. will be severely missing attacking creativity. In fact, they’ve been missing attacking creativity even with Acosta in the lineup. D.C. rank in the lower tiers of shots per game and xG per game. They lack difference-makers — players who can find the ball and pick out passes that others don’t see.
Acosta has been a difference-maker in the past, but this season his productivity has waned. DCU don’t have other players who can both fill in when Acosta’s production dips and, most importantly, help boost the Argentine. They need a secondary creator.
Lucas Rodriguez is a dribbler, but he’s not a passer or an adept connector. Paul Arriola is a workhorse. The deeper midfielders have yet to find ways to impact further up the field the way players like Cristian Roldan in Seattle have.
D.C. have to surround Rodriguez and Arriola with players who can move the ball and keep D.C.’s attack from faltering. Rodriguez, while electric on the ball, has an xGChain/96 figure of 0.96, lower than that of Gyasi Zardes. Arriola is a high-caliber player, but similarly lacks the ability to find difference-making passes.
Above all else, D.C. need a shake-up. They’ve clearly stagnated. We’ll see what this transfer window brings.
NYC lost twice in MLS in the last couple of weeks, to the Portland Timbers and the Red Bulls. In between those, they sandwiched a penalty-kick defeat in the US Open Cup quarterfinals against Orlando City.
Pigeons fans need not worry too much about these recent setbacks. The Red Bulls loss had a fluky feel to it — NYRB scored their goals on a penalty-kick and a bizarre, controversial referee mismanagement situation. NYC had dominated much of the New York Derby. They had their chances against Portland, losing 1-0 despite dominating the xG battle. Penalty shootouts are basically coin tosses.
In general, City look like one of the league’s better teams, and hold games in hand on most of their Eastern Conference rivals. Their attack is deep. Younger options have emerged in midfield alongside Alex Ring; most notably, Keaton Parks has become an important starter, and James Sands will continue to have a role. Maxi Moralez is a legitimate MVP candidate.
Dome Torrent has his team spreading opponents out, sending the fullbacks forward, and thriving off of diagonal switches in the attacking third. It is an effective formula, but they have to be careful to prevent the well running dry.
Have Atlanta adjusted to Frank de Boer’s system? I’m inclined to say that they have, to a certain extent. They’ve worked their way back up to third in the Eastern Conference, and they have started to improve in midfield. Justin Meram has shown flashes of pre-Orlando City Justin Meram.
But when they win, defending and Josef Martinez make the difference.
Ezequiel Barco and Hector Villalba are still injured. With Brek Shea out for the year and Mikey Amrbose battling thigh problems, they don’t have a left back. Pity Martinez has not yet transformed into a world-beating superstar, and it’s hard to see that happening any time soon. They have a ceiling now that they didn’t have in the past.
The five-game win streak they ripped off at the beginning of May appears to have been a product of a weak schedule; they took four of a possible 15 points in the five games prior to Wednesday’s 5-0 demolition of 10-man Houston.
De Boer should roll with the 3-5-2-ish formation he tested against the Dynamo. Julian Gressel is best used as a wingback, and a three-at-the-back is the only way De Boer can fit the center back trio of Miles Robinson, Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and Michael Parkhurst together. Pity’s defensive apathy would be most effectively sheltered in a second striker role.
Atlanta will keep trying to find the best version of themselves.
New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls, contrary to previous NYRB seasons, look set up to succeed in the playoffs instead of the regular season. They took some time to coalesce this year — a process that makes sense, considering the departure of Tyler Adams, injuries on the backline, Champions League congestion, and Kaku’s going off the rails at various times — and now they are motoring along at a reasonable pace.
It’s hard to see them going on a run and challenging for first in the conference, barring some big signing of a winger. Reigning Defender of the Year Aaron Long has been the subject of transfer rumors this summer. If they sell, they make things very difficult for themselves this season.
But aside from Adams’s departure and Bradley Wright-Phillips’s decline to super-sub status, not too much is different about this Red Bulls team from previous iterations. They play a similar style and press the ball well. In the waning BWP years (and first Brian White year!), they’ll want to make a serious run in October.
The current top team, Philly have been better and more consistent than every team in the East except for (arguably) NYCFC. They have the look of a bona fide elite, though the recent injury of Jamiro Monteiro has stunted their recent form.
They may be a bit overrated in some areas. Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie haven’t had seasons to write home about, though Jack Elliott has been very good at center back. Andre Blake is perpetually the most overrated keeper in the league. The signing of journeyman American Andrew Wooten at striker is unlikely to be a serious difference-maker.
In general, though, the Union are legit. Ilsinho is a weapon off the bench that other teams don’t have. Kai Wagner has been one of the league’s best left backs this season. The diamond formation has worked wonders, and continues to produce quality possession. They will face a battle to finish at the top of the conference.
With the exception of a thrilling final five minutes that also saw Josef Martinez put Atlanta ahead in the 91st, this was a sloppy, physical, frustrating mess of a game.
Atlanta starts fast then disappears
The home team started strong, controlling possession and the overall tempo of the game. Playing on their front foot, Atlanta got on the board first after Pity Martinez threaded a perfect ball to Justin Meram, which he neatly tucked away past Luis Robles.
Atlanta slowed the pace down but looked in control until the 29th minute. Then center-back Florentin Pogba — who had looked among the best on the pitch up until that point — went out with an injury. The entire tone of the game quickly changed.
New York leveled the game eight minutes after Pogba’s departure as Daniel Royer capitalized on poor Atlanta defending to knock a left-footed shot into the top corner past Brad Guzan. The game went to half-time tied 1-1.
New York takes over in the second half
Whether it was the Red Bulls stepping up their game or Atlanta simply looking disorganized and disinterested, New York took command in the second half.
The Red Bulls took a 2-1 lead in the 60th minute when Brian White was left unchecked by a sloppy Atlanta defensive, easily burying a feed from Alex Muyl.
Another Pity-ful performance
Just as Pogba’s injury departure changed the game, so did a timely substitution in the 63rd minute by Atlanta coach Frank de Boer.
The micro Pity Martinez Experience is the perfect encapsulation of the macro experience of this game in general. Pity is capable of fleeting moments of brilliance, like his pass to Meram leading to the opener.
Mostly though, he’s sloppy, careless, lackadaisical and temperamental. He’s a frustrating and miserable player to watch.
Fortunately for Atlanta fans in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they didn’t have to deal with the Pity Martinez Experience past the 63rd minute. He was subbed off to absolutely no pattering of applause as Brandon Vázquez took his place.
Atlanta looked immediately improved.
They broke through in the 79th minute, as Josef Martinez drew a penalty in the box. Moments later, he leveled the game from the spot 2-2.
Five minutes of fury
Even in more turnover prone and careless stretches of play, the game had been chippy and physical throughout.
Everything amped up the final five minutes in stoppage time.
Josef Martinez netted a brace in the 91st minute, heading home a goal to give Atlanta a 3-2 lead.
Just two minutes later, BWP, who subbed on in the 77th minute for Brian White, tied the game 3-3 when Atlanta forgot the general concepts of defending yet again.
The Atlanta crowd went utterly silent at that point.
The players, however, did not.
The chippy play that had been building all game reached a boiling point in the 95th minute. A couple of on-field scrums nearly broke out, and the refs just decided to end the game, leaving the home crowd stunned.
Updated: June 10th, 2019
Despite a recent resurgence, reigning champs Atlanta United have fallen from pre-season favorites of +500 to +900. Last year’s Supporters’ Shield winner for best regular-season record, New York Red Bulls, dropped even further, going from +550 to +1600.
LAFC, who started the year at +700, are no prohibitive favorites at +200. They’re followed by Zlatan-led LA Galaxy (+750), the aforementioned ATL UTD, and NYCFC (+900). Eastern conference table-toppers Philadelphia Union have climbed from a pre-season +3300 to +1600.
The biggest risers from pre-season are San Jose. They’ve climbed from the cellar (+25000) to a respectable +6000.
(Odds as of June 10th, 2019)
|LAFC +200||LA Galaxy – +750||Atlanta United +900||NYCFC +900|
|DC United +1400||New York Red Bulls +1600||Seattle Sounders +1600||Philadelphia Union +1600|
|Montreal Impact +1600||Columbus Crew +2400||Houston Dynamo +2400||FC Dallas +3100|
|Sporting KC +3100||Toronto FC +3100||Portland Timbers +3400||Minnesota United +5000|
|Orlando City +5000||San Jose Earthquakes +6000||Chicago Fire +9500||Real Salt Lake +9500|
|Vancouver Whitecaps +11000||Colorado Rapids +12000||New England Revolution +12000||FC Cincinnati +20000|
MEN of the Match
For his 65th minute winner and first career MLS goal, NYRB rookie Tom Barlow was singled out as Man of the Match.
In truth, several Red Bulls would have been worthy recipients of the honor. Michael Murillo, Amro Tarek, Daniel Royer, and Sean Nealis all merited consideration. Had I been asked I would have given the nod to fullback Kemar Lawrence for his high octane defensive work throughout.
But MoM or not, the candid and ebullient Lawrence was clearly the star of the post-game.
The Jamaican international’s locker is the first inside the door at the home team’s room at Red Bull Arena. With the media packed tightly around Lawrence on Sunday night, egress and access became a problem for his teammates, including injured striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, who was seen politely making his way through the thicket, balancing a tray of food as he went on his way.
Lawrence came into this matchup with Atlanta hyped to avenge last season’s playoff loss, which he sat out injured. Lawerence played Sunday’s match like a man with a point to prove and his intensity was met by Atlanta’s Hector “Tito” Villalba, with the two battling for 90 minutes and then some, as the Atlanta man attempted to get at Lawrence after the final whistle had blown.
Stationed in front of his locker, Lawrence was practically bursting to say his piece. “I told you I was gonna, right. I told you, I’m gonna win, right? I’m gonna win it for my team. And we went out there we did,” Lawrence began.
And he was just getting started. “I told you, I’ve been carrying around a lot of anger because I got injured last year. And I missed out on the biggest games ever for my team, the Conference Finals. And I just had that feeling. If I was on the field last year, we would have won that game. So I know I had the worst offseason last year knowing I was injured. So getting back from injury and facing these guys, when I’m getting really my full fitness level. It was just amazing. And the only thing on my mind was to repay them for how my team felt. I felt that we did that today.”
Lawrence and Villalba were involved in a late-game incident that led to the post-match fracas when Lawrence stood over the prone Atlanta forward and exulted. Atlanta got a free kick out it, one that could have mattered as Red Bulls clung to a 1-0 lead.
Atlanta took offense at Lawrence’s exuberance, with team captain Michael Parkhurst telling High Press Soccer afterward that, “we were upset with how Lawrence stood over Tito at the end of the game, and, you know, barked at him. I just don’t think there’s a need for that.”
Villaba also expressed similar feelings, but when word was relayed to Lawrence that Atlanta felt that he had been disrespectful, the Jamaican chuckled. “Lack of respect? No, honestly I can tell you what I said, I said, bring your best. I said, come on, bring your best. I see you bring your best against every guy, week in and week out, I want your best. That’s what I said. So if he feels like that’s disrespectful, that’s his fault.”
Exciting match from two emerging rivals
The match itself was a high-energy affair with New York flying out of the traps, perhaps in a bid to wear down Atlanta, who played and won Wednesday night in Vancouver.
Atlanta’s 1-0 win over the Whitecaps was the fifth on the trot for the defending MLS Cup Champions and the club’s fifth shutout in a row.
Atlanta coach Frank de Boer knew his team had missed an opportunity to topple the Red Bulls while playing with a man advantage from the 35th minute when Tim Parker was shown the line for pulling Josef Martinez and “denying a clear goalscoring opportunity.”
“Everybody is very disappointed to get not even a more out of it. And yeah, the time was right for three points,” de Boer noted, adding, “it’s always difficult to win here.”
The United coach didn’t seem to be looking for excuses. Rather, de Boer seemed forthright when asked about possible fatigue. “100%? It’s fatigue, I gave him two days off, because we have to be physically but also mentally, ready for Salt Lake, on Friday. And, you know, I saw the spirit was there, you know, they wanted but maybe the body and the mind, you know, sometimes will not do what you think will want to do.”
The big moments in the match came down to the red card to Parker and the New York goal. New York’s impressive depth, not an easy thing to build in a salary capped MLS, was key The Red Bulls started without USMNT center back Aaron Long and 35 minutes in his partner, Parker, was shown red.
Sean Nealis was introduced and he would be instrumental in the game’s lone goal. Red Bulls coach Chris Armas praised the substitute for his courage to make a play. “Sean Nealis drives with the ball on that play from center back and he makes a really good pass.”
Nealis set up Royer, who hit a brilliant cross that Barlow somehow managed to head back across Brad Guzan’s goal and into the net for what turned out to be the winner.
It was exciting, it was a bit nasty, and it seemed like the beginning of a rivalry sparked by genuine dislike.
De Boer doesn’t seem to mind. “Yeah, but it’s nice, you know, to have that kind of vitality between two teams, you know, because, yeah, that makes the sports. Fun, I think to watch, you know, they’re eager to win against each other, and they will do everything to win it from each other. Of course, there always has to be respect, of course, on both sides. But yeah, this is what you want. This is what you want to experience every week.”
And what does Lawrence think of the rivalry?
“I feel like this is like on the top of the list. I feel like there’s really a rivalry there.”
And how does Lawrence feel about his battles with Villalba? “Every now and then,” a smiling Lawrence began, “you’re going to find one player that you don’t like. You know, a lot of guys around the league like me,” but the New York fullback concluded with a shrug, “I can’t please everyone.”
MLS Matchday 12 odds are released and with loads of quality games this week. Our two marquee match-ups for the week are: Philadelphia vs Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls vs Atlanta United
MLS Matchweek 12 Game Odds
All listed odds from May 15 on FanDuel Sportsbook NJ.
|Wednesday, May 15|
|Toronto FC -150||Draw +310||D.C. United +380|
|Houston Dynamo -150||Draw +320||Portland Timbers +350|
|Vancouver Whitecaps +220||Draw +250||Atlanta United +120|
|Seattle Sounders -220||Draw +360||Orlando City +550|
|Thursday, May 16||Draw +260||Southampton +195|
|Los Angeles FC -310||Draw +440||FC Dallas +750|
|Saturday, May 18||Liverpool -310|
|Montreal Impact -135||Draw +280||New England +350|
|Real Salt Lake +130||Draw +270||Toronto FC +185|
|San Jose Earthquakes +105||Draw +280||Chicago Fire +220|
|Philadelphia -120||Draw +280||Seattle Sounders +300|
|Minnesota United +115||Draw +250||Columbus +230|
|Houston Dynamo -130||Draw +290||D.C. United +320|
|Kansas City -250||Draw +390||Vancouver Whitecaps +600|
|Sunday, May 19|
|Orlando City -135||Draw +280||FC Cincinnati +370|
|New York Red Bulls +140||Draw +250||Atlanta United +185|
|FC Dallas +190||Draw +260||Los Angeles FC +130|
|LA Galaxy -270||Draw +440||Colorado +650|
Visit FanDuel Sportsbook NJ as games near for updated odds and, for NJ residents, to place your wagers.
Odds and Ends
- In our first marquee match of the week, Philadelphia Union (-120) take on Seattle Sounders (+300). Not only does Philadelphia have the advantage of playing at home, but they are also sitting 1st in the Eastern Conference and have a 5 game unbeaten streak. Seattle Sounders are not in a bad position either – sitting 3rd in the Western Conference. However, they have only won 1 out of 4 away games and have not beat Philly since 2016.
- In our other marquee match up, New York Red Bulls (+140) take on Atlanta United (+185). Last week, we had high hopes for NYRB who seemed to be getting back in their groove with two back-to-back wins…until Montreal brought them back to reality beating them 2-1 in New York. They did, however, redeem themselves against Dallas this past Saturday. Meanwhile, Atlanta has been on a roll with four back to back wins. Atlanta does, however, have a difficult week ahead of them as they travel all the way to Vancouver on Wednesday after just playing this past Sunday and then heading to New York on Sunday. While Atlanta is doing that, Red Bulls get to recover and prepare the whole week for Sunday’s match up. Regardless, this will be a good indicator as to which team’s improved form is for real.
MLS Matchday 11 odds are released. Starting off the week we already have four matches on Wednesday night, including our marquee match of the week:Atlanta United and Toronto FC.
MLS Matchweek 11 Game Odds
All listed odds from May 08 onFanDuel Sportsbook NJ.
|Wednesday, May 8|
|Atlanta United -180||Draw +340||Toronto FC +450|
|Columbus Crew +100||Draw +270||LA Galaxy +250|
|New York Red Bulls -135||Draw +280||Montreal Impact +380|
|Chicago Fire -165||Draw +310||New England +430|
|Friday, May 10||Draw +270||LA Galaxy +250|
|Vancouver Whitecaps +130||Draw +260||Portland Timbers +190|
|Saturday, May 11|
|FC Cincinnati +120||Draw +260||Montreal Impact +210|
|FC Dallas +100||Draw +260||New York Red Bulls +260|
|Toronto FC +100||Draw +280||Philadelphia Union +240|
|LA Galaxy +100||Draw +280||New York City FC +250|
|Columbus Crew +150||Draw +270||Los Angeles FC +260|
|New England -105||Draw +280||San Jose Earthquakes +250|
|Chicago Fire -120||Draw +280||Minnesota United +290|
|Colorado +105||Draw +280||Real Salt Lake +220|
|Sunday, May 12|
|Atlanta United -195||Draw +370||Orlando City +480|
Visit FanDuel Sportsbook NJ as games near for updated odds and, for NJ residents, to place your wagers.
Odds and Ends
- In our marquee match of the week, Atlanta United (-180) take on Toronto FC (+450) at home. We chose this match for a few reasons: 1) Atlanta had a fantastic upset versus Kansas City last week 2) Atlanta has yet to beat Toronto FC and 3) Barco will be missing from Atlanta’s line up as he is off with Argentina for the U20 World Cup. Pity Martinez, who is still without any assists or goals this season, will be leading the midfield for Atlanta against Toronto and their superstar transfer Pozuelo. The betting odds are in Atlanta’s favor but this match may prove to be more difficult than expected.
- Also playing tonight, New York Red Bulls (-135) take on Montreal Impact (+380) and things seem to be looking up for NYRB. Last week, NYRB put a stop to LA Galaxy’s 7 game winning streak in a 3-2 thriller. Now, NYRB take on Montreal Impact (who are currently sitting third in the Eastern Conference) at home again. NYRB have done well at home…let’s see if they can continue the trend.
- On Saturday, LA Galaxy (+100) will be back at home taking on New York City FC (+250) after their difficult loss to NYRB. This was their first loss in 8 games while New York City are coming off a 2-0 win in Montreal and have been unbeaten in the last 6 matches. In the last head to head match up between these two teams (March 11, 2019), New York City won at home 2-1.
The sleeping giant known as Atlanta United may have finally woken up.
The team, as well as coach Frank de Boer, are starting to understand each other a little better on the pitch.
This was the third win in four games for United. It’s quite a turnaround for the Five Stripes. The MLS season started poorly, and the CONCACAF Champions League was rough. Where has the improvement come from lately?
FdB making slight tactical adjustments that are working
On one hand, Frank de Boer has not changed much from the start of the season. He’s still playing a possession-heavy game, but the team is opening up and attacking more.
His formation varied from a 4-5-1 to a 4-3-3 during the game against Sporting KC Sunday night. There were times during the match that Atlanta had as many as 8 players on the attacking side of the pitch. Atlanta was able to play the possession-based style that de Boer wants, holding the ball for 55% of the time while maintaining a 87% passing accuracy, but playing an uptempo style that was reminiscent of last season.
A look at their heat map from WhoScored against KC (ATL is on the right with 771 touches) shows they dominated play in the middle of the pitch–and higher up the pitch as well.
Compare that to some of their poorest showings–like against Philadelphia below where they’re on the left (and where they had nearly double the touches–but many in their defensive third).
Or look at the draw against FC Cincinnati (same, same)–and you’ll see how Atlanta is pressing more and playing higher today versus last month. The trend really started not against New England Revolution, but in a loss against FC Dallas where they were the better, but unluckier, squad.
Line-up changes working as well and the rise of Barco
The placement of Michael Parkhurst at left-back was questionable as it was the first time he started in that position in 7 years. Parkhurst age showed at times but in the end, de Boer made the correct choice in starting Parkhurst. His ability to cross the ball, defensive presence and the ability to see the field was a great advantage to the team.
The transition game of Atlanta United looked quick and unstoppable against Sporting KC. Ezequiel Barco is showing that he can be the replacement at the #10 position for Miguel Almiron. He was able to link with Josef Martinez and create more chances on the night. He scored from outside the 18-yard box on a rocket shot and had an assist on the second goal for Martinez.
This connection is what Atlanta fans have been hoping to see all season. While on the topic of Josef Martinez, last years MLS Golden Boot winner seems to have found his confidence and is putting the ball in the back of the net. Josef Martinez showed Sunday night he is ready to get back to putting the ball in the back of the net. His awareness of where the ball was inside the 18-yard box was uncanny. He put his body on the line every chance he was able to get a touch on the ball. Part of the reason ATL has had a better non-shot xG tally in every single game except for the opener is due to Martinez’s adept in the box movement.
The midfield continued to be controlled by Darlington Nagbe. His precision passing and ability to win balls back in the attacking half are proving to be valuable. The return of Eric Remedi was welcomed after a two-game absence.
Defensively the team looked like a wall. Brad Guzan was tested very little as the back four held Sporting KC to only 3 shots on target the majority coming in the first few minutes of the game. Miles Robinson is proving to be a defensive stronghold and the use of him and Leonardo Gonzalez Perez game after game for de Boer is paying off. The combination is proving to be one of the strongest in MLS, and has helped guide the team to three clean sheets in the last four games.
Still some areas of improvement
Atlanta has been taking a number of shots outside the 18 yard box. These tend to be lower quality shots, and that is part of the reason they’ve posted losses like against FC Dallas, where ATL was clearly the better team.
Finding passing lanes and crosses to take advantage of Martinez’s inside the box movement would also help create higher quality big opportunities.
Regardless, if Atlanta can stay healthy and find a consistent left-back, the team is in position to turn around their dismal start and be the playoff team everyone expected at the beginning of the year.
Atlanta United defeated Sporting KC 3-0 at Children’s Mercy Park on Sunday in a game that felt like a return to normalcy for the defending MLS Cup champs.
Let us count the ways.
1. They were fun to watch
Part of the reason Atlanta so quickly embraced UTD was they played an exciting brand of soccer.
This year…not so much.
Even in their better performances and wins, they never consistently hit the “exhilarating” pace that defined them during their first two years.
Away at KC, they were counter-attacking and pressing, generating shots and playing with confidence.
They looked like Atlanta United.
2. Martinez got the goals and attention, but wasn’t the best player
Josef Martinez is an amazing player who broke the MLS seasonal goal record last year. He won MVP.
This year, Ezequiel Barco is looking like the Almiron-engine that will drive United.
On that note, Pity Martinez looks like the 2018-version of Barco: a talented fly in the ointment who may be a year away from making the impact we all expected.
3. However…Atlanta got kinda lucky
More on this later, but Frank de Boerhas eschewed his worst impulses and let his squad open it up lately.
However, the game against KC isn’t necessarily a sustainable model. Atlanta took a high number of shots outside the 18. Barco converted his. Josef Martinez’s second shot was just inside the box but it was not a high percentage shot. He just struck it incredibly well.
Regardless, Atlanta passed the eye test on Sunday. It looks like a squad that found their footing and went back to the basics that have made them successful in the past.
I had been right the entire season.
Atlanta United have looked markedly better the last two games under FdB, and they were 100% the superior team in today’s 1-2 loss to FC Dallas as well as last week’s 2-0 win against the New England Revolution.
The underlying numbers back this up.
Ball don’t lie Part II
Part of my continued hammering of de Boer was rooted in the fact that Inter and Crystal Palace were genuinely horrific by any and ever measurable during his abbreviated tenures there.
The Five Stripes followed suit. They were among the worst teams in the MLS the first few games of the season, and all of the numbers backed that up.
The past two games tell a different story.
FdB’s first four games were a shitshow. No intensity. No attack. No offense. No scoring.
As this graphic illustrates, Atlanta’s attack through the end of March was “ineffectual” to say the least.
The one bright spot they had going for them was their non-shooting xG. A month into the season, they saw an uptick in the scoring opportunities their movements around the box should’ve been creating.
But they weren’t scoring. At all.
They did well in possession, but that possession saw the ball moving backwards too often and not into meaningful channels towards the attacking third.
The past two games? It’s been a different story.
Their xG and non-shot xG have outpaced New England and Dallas.
Against New England, they were actually out-possessed but created quality shots from through balls and individual skill (see: Ezequiel Barco). A total of 68% of their shots came from inside the 18 (ATL is blue in the below chart). This meant that all of that non-shot xG was actually being taken advantage of finally.
Today, ATL out-possessed Dallas 71-29%.
They took an outstanding 22 shots on goal with 8 on target (Dallas took 8 total with an unsustainably efficient 6 on target). Part of Atlanta’s “inefficiency” against Dallas was from taking more shots outside of the 18 (they’re red below, at 45%). However, part of the Dallas loss was fluky bad luck. If Barco doesn’t hit the post on his screamer, everyone’s mood and perception of the team is probably different.
Will de Boer stay the course or revert back to his losing ways?
De Boer has clearly shifted strategy since losing to the Crew. Atlanta is attacking more and creating more opportunities.
While they have a -3 goal differential for the season, thanks to their improved play the past two games, their xG for 2019 is now 9.2 compared to an 8.1 xGA. Their expected goal differential is +1.1 compared to a -3 reality. There will be regression to the mean if this keeps up and their record should improve.
The key for Atlanta is that de Boer doesn’t get discouraged by a bad result or two and go back to what’s familiar to him — which has been and is a losing strategy for years.
Atlanta is improving. Now the results need to catch up to the numbers.
After seven weeks of MLS, the Western Conference is nosing ahead of the East, reversing a trend from last year.
LAFC and the Seattle Sounders are likely the two best teams in the league (a case can be made LAFC is certainly the best), easily outpacing eastern leaders DC United and the Columbus Crew. With an undefeated Houston Dynamo, a CCL-free Sporting KC and spry FC Dallas, the West looks like it could produce a superior group of seven playoff teams.
At the bottom, however, the difference is stark, and could be spark an East revival. The floundering New England Revolution are the only bottom-tier East team that fits the profile of a true last-place contender. Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls will surely sort themselves out enough to accelerate up the standings. Hectic, draw-happy NYCFC could rise as well.
Five East teams are out of the playoffs as it stands, with each team having played between five and seven games: the four mentioned above, plus eighth-place Chicago Fire. Let’s go over each one, and evaluate whether they can overtake the playoff teams:
The Fire are a confusing team. They theoretically have at least some attacking talent, enough to win games and challenge good teams. Nico Gaitan arrived as a new DP talent not too long ago. With CJ Sapong playing either up top or on the wing as a target scorer, Chicago have versatility.
But watching them, it’s hard to discern what they’re trying to do, or any consistency to their approach. Aleksandar Katai’s role is ambiguous. The midfield can pass, but there is little connectedness, and the front four is all over the place. They have to sort themselves out before they can maximize their ability.
New York Red Bulls
Rumors of Thierry Henry taking the managerial job notwithstanding, the Red Bulls have underperformed to start the year. They’ve managed just one win from their first six games, and now will lose Kaku for (presumably) a significant stretch of games after he went a little bonkers in Kansas City.
One of their biggest keys to getting back on track is Cristian Casseres Jr. in midfield. The Red Bulls need strength and ball-winning out of his position. Stability there could rub off on the backline.
If the Fire are difficult to figure out, NYC are doubly so. Discerning what Dome Torrent is trying to do is impossible on a game-by-game basis. With five draws from six games, this is an oddball team. No one really knows what to expect from them.
It will be interesting to see how Torrent manages the playing time of his wingers. Alexandru Mitrita, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, Jonathan Lewis, Jesus Medina and Valentin Castellanos are competing for the same minutes, and once Heber takes the starting forward job, none of them will be able to play as a false 9. Right now, it looks like Mitrita and Lewis are the favorites to start, though Castellanos had his best game in MLS last week in Minnesota.
Atlanta’s road win over New England will inspire renewed confidence in a Five Stripes team enduring a sluggish start to the season. Winning against the Revs is far from a difficult task, but there were positive elements to take.
Most notably, Ezequiel Barco produced a breakout performance. With Hector Villalba starting on the left side, Barco had space to maneuver and generate chances. His confidence looked as high as it’s been in MLS. More performances like that would be a boon for Atlanta as they deal with complacency and Pity Martinez’s injury.
New England Revolution
The Revs are a few classes below the rest of these clubs. Outside of a 2-1 home win over Minnesota on March 30, New England have very publicly struggled. Brad Friedel, looking a lot worse now than he did in the early days of his coaching tenure, blamed MLS’s structure for his managerial deficiencies.
The attack, as ever, is marginally good enough to get the Revs into the playoffs with a strong midfield and stout defense. Those things, reader, are not happening in New England. The midfield is a revolving door, particularly when Wilfried Zahibo plays, and the backline is leaky and mistake-prone. A high-energy press will nick them points, but teams figured the Revs out a long time ago, and they aren’t organized enough at the back to keep the ball out of their net.
In a game that was a must-win for Atlanta United, a key early decision may have been the turning point Frank de Boer and the Five Stripes needed.
In the 15th minute away at New England Revolution, Eric Remedi suffered a head injury. De Boer opted to sub in Ezequiel Barco. The tone of the game–and possibly the season–immediately shifted from there.
Barco quickly impacted the game, scoring in the 29th minute with a goal assisted by Tito Villalba. Barco netted a brace with what should be an MLS Goal of the Week nominee in the 49th minute with a right-footed bomb to the upper 90 from outside the 18-yard box (2:05 in the below video).
Miles Robinson continued to perform like a seasoned veteran. Franco Escobar and Pity Martinez also took the pitch as subs late in the game. Both players are returning from injury and have seen limited time this season.
FdB ends a long win-less streak
In the victory, Frank de Boer ended his 900-day winless streak. He did so, in part, by doing something that hasn’t been a trademark of his coaching philosophy the past few years: adapting.
De Boer moved away from his 3-4-3 formation and went back to the 4-3-3 formation that sometimes floated into a 4-2-3-1 formation. The team seemed to be more comfortable and play more organized. Atlanta had a clear identity and the players knew what their roles were and played them well.
The real question worth asking: is Frank de Boer starting to feel the pressure to win and maybe straying away from the European style that he is accustomed to and playing more of a South American style that this team is known for playing? Saturday night the answer was yes.
The 5 Stripes played to the caliber the supporters have been waiting to see all season. They looked like the MLS Championship side that are a threat to take 3 points every game.
If de Boer is feeling the pressure from ghosts of clubs past (Inter and Palace), his response on Saturday night is definitely encouraging. ATLUTD supporters will see if this performance was an aberration or a sign of things to come next week as they take on Dallas FC at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
MLS Matchweek 7 Game OddsAs always, home team is listed first. If you need a refresher, visit how to bet MLS or how to bet soccer. All listed odds from April 10 on FanDuel Sportsbook NJ.
|Wednesday, April 10|
|Colorado Rapids +194||Draw +240||Seattle Sounders +140|
|Friday, April 12|
|Chicago Fire -145||Draw +320||Vancouver Whitecaps +350|
|Saturday, April 13|
|Montreal Impact +115||Draw +250||Columbus Crew +220|
|Houston Dynamo -180||Draw +350||San Jose Earthquakes +440|
|Seattle Sounders -120||Draw +270||Toronto FC +320|
|Minnesota United -115||Draw +280||New York City FC +280|
|New England Revolution +145||Draw +240||Atlanta United +180|
|FC Dallas -155||Draw +310||Portland Timbers +390|
|Colorado Rapids +185||Draw +250||D.C. United +140|
|Real Salt Lake -115||Draw +280||Orlando City +280|
|Los Angeles FC -270||Draw +410||FC Cincinnati +650|
|LA Galaxy -105||Draw +280||Philadelphia Union +250|
|Sunday, April 14|
|Sporting KC +100||Draw +270||New York Red Bulls +250|
Odds and Ends
- In our marquee match-up, Sporting KC (+100) vs New York Red Bulls (+250) battle it out in Sporting’s backyard. Looking at both teams the past weekend, Sporting is coming off a tie away against FC Cincinnati (not to mention their tough loss in CCL) while the Red Bulls come off a loss at home to Minnesota United where the Red Bulls were seen to be struggling. In fact, the Red Bulls have only picked up 4 points in their last 5 matches. Pretty tragic so far. BUT, can anyone remember 2016 when Red Bulls were 1-and-6 and then ended up winning the Eastern Conference? We wouldn’t count them out just yet. Both teams need the points — for morale and conference standings.
- The match of the weekend in terms of current conference standing goes to Seattle Sounders (-120) vs Toronto FC (+320). With Sounders coming off a win at home while Toronto FC struggled for a tie at home last weekend against Chicago Fire, who currently sit at the bottom half of the table of the Eastern Conference, it’s easy to see why Sounders are the favorites. With all this being said, both teams sit in one of the top 3 spots in their conference…if I were Toronto, I’d be a bit offended by the value they were given. Toronto at +320 deserves a longer look.
- A value play worth taking a look at is Minnesota FC (-115) vs New York City FC (+280). Currently, Minnesota have accumulated the most away points (9 points) out of any MLS team in 2019. On top of that, they are about to play in their new home stadium for the very first time. Meanwhile, New York City FC are sitting second to last in the Eastern Conference which makes sense considering they’re currently without a win in their first 5 matches and can’t seem to score (statistics show that they’re averaging LESS than a goal per game). With all this being said, a value favorite is Minnesota FC.
- Another match to look out for is Atlanta United (+180) vs New England Revolution (+145). Both teams are sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. It’s still quite early to make a judgement call based on standings but, needless to say, both teams need a win. ATL UTD are returning fresh after a weekend off while New England are returning home after coming off a loss away at Columbus Crew.
You know that saying about history repeating itself?
If you’re an Atlanta United fan who wants to take a spork to your eyeballs this season as you watch your once dynamic and exciting team be the exact opposite of dynamic and exciting, this Tactics Explained video on Frank de Boer‘s struggles at Crystal Palace will not make you feel better.
You can simply replace a lot of “Crystal Palace” with “Atlanta United” and some player names and it’s the exact same video.
Gotta score to win
FdB’s post-Ajax teams have all had problems putting the ball in the back of the net. While I’m not a scientist or mathematician, last I checked the best way to win at soccer is by tallying more goals than your opponent.
Frank de Boer’s recent teams don’t do this.
You could over-simplify this issue by saying, “Makes sense, he was a center-back, and is more concerned about building from the back, backline organization and solid defensive tactics.” Ooooorrrrr… you could say that he’s married to a style of possession and play that’s outdated and he’s unwilling to adapt his unsuccessfully philosophies to his successful personnel.
Atlanta United was a well-oiled goal scoring machine last year.
In exactly zero MLS games this season have the Five Stripes produced more shot-based xG than their opponent. They have produced more non-shot xGs in two of their games, meaning their movement around their opponent’s penalty area should be creating scoring opportunities, but there’s a disconnect between their movement and forward-progression to shots on goal. It’s a small sample size, and maybe Miguel Almirón’s departure and skill-set are part of the reason for that disconnect.
But! If you go back to de Boer’s time at Palace and Inter, the same bottomline problems existed. His teams don’t score when he’s there, and then do score more the rest of the season when he leaves.
|Inter w/ FdB||Inter post-FdB||Palace w/ FdB||Palace post-FdB|
|GPG Avg: .84||GPG Avg: 2.18||GPG Avg: 0||GPG Avg: 1.3|
So how about ATLUTD this year compared to last year?
|ATL with Tata ’18 GPG||ATL with FdB ’19 GPG|
Ball don’t lie…
As we’ve written before, de Boer cheerleaders point to his time at Ajax as evidence that he’s a capable coach. However, Ajax will always be a dominant team in the Eredivisie. They’ve literally never finished lower than fifth IN THE HISTORY OF THE CLUB, and that’s only happened twice.
While there were certainly higher-level issues at Inter, the team improved from 12th to 7th in Serie A after FdB was sacked (in 85 days). In the four (!!!) Premier League games he coached before getting sacked at Crystal Palace, his team scored exactly zero goals. They improved from 20th (last) in the Premier League table to 11th by season’s end.
Atlanta United is currently last in the Eastern Conference table.
The lack of an offense and overall results are more than just a trend. This is who Frank de Boer is as a coach.
Ugly. Not pleasant on the eyes. Slow. Sloppy.
All of those words fit the Columbus Crew‘s Mapfre Stadium on Saturday night—-aaaand Atlanta United under manager Frank de Boer.
In about the worst weather conditions you’ll ever see for a professional sports event, which included an almost hour-long delay after lighting struck nearby, Atlanta United suffered a 2-0 defeat to the Columbus Crew.
There’s an old saying about excuses…
While players on each side expressed disbelief that the match was allowed to continue given the state of the field, both teams faced the exact same conditions. One team prevailed.
Columbus scored their first goal in the second minute due to an Atlanta defensive breakdown before weather became a real factor. Given the time FdB finally had to work with his squad during the international break and further implement his system, that opening two minutes was as bad of a result the Five Stripes could’ve imaged. The breakdown speaks loudly towards the mental state of this team under their new manager.
You are what your record says you are
As we wrote after the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appointment at Manchester United, you are what your record says you are.
Even so, an ATL optimist would look at this match and note:
- Columbus was an unsustainable 2 for 2 converting shots on goal in the first 39 minutes
- Atlanta held a slight possession advantage (54% – 46%)
- Atlanta significantly outshot their opponent 16 (5 on target) to 8 (3 on target)
A realist would look at the match (and season) though and note:
- They lost
- They’re winless in the MLS
- They’ve literally scored 2 goals in four MLS matches this season
- This is starting to look an awful lot like FdB’s stints at Crystal Palace and Inter
- Actually scratch that, this looks exactly like FdB’s stints at Crystal Palace and Inter
- They’ve out-possessed every MLS team they’ve played this season, often by large margins
- That possession isn’t created substantive scoring opportunities, because…
- …their 2.5 xGF ranks LAST in the MLS after ranking FIRST last year
- They’re LAST in the MLS Eastern table after winning the 2018 MLS Cup
This likely isn’t getting better.
Atlanta’s roster is almost double in value to the next closest MLS team (LAFC). The talent is there to do better.
This is on the manager. This is on de Boer.
Here’s an updated look at FdB’s career managerial record:
|Ajax||6 December 2010||11 May 2016||262||158||57||47||60.3|
|Inter||9 August 2016||1 November 2016||14||5||2||7||35.7|
|Crystal Palace||26 June 2017||11 September 2017||5||1||0||4||20.0|
|Atlanta United||23 December 2018||Present (includes CONCACAF CL)||8||2||2||4||25.0|
Ajax hasn’t finished lower than 4th in the Eredivisie during the 21st century. Not to diminish de Boer’s record or achievement while there, but even Frank de Boer this guy could get Ajax consistently near the top of the Eredivisie table. Ajax always brings in young talent, and they develop that talent as good as anyone in the world.
Look past Ajax, and FdB at ATL is perfectly consistent with his previous jobs: few goals and few victories.
De Boer’s style of possession and play is a relic of soccer from 10 years ago. With apologies to Atlético Madrid, the game has changed and evolved into mostly a counter-attacking, shape-shifting style. As Dirty South Soccer accurately pointed out, this was key to the Five Stripes success.
Barring a metamorphosis by de Boer, it’s not going to get better for Atlanta United. There’s no shame in moving on from a mistake as soon as you realize you’ve made one. This isn’t working. It’s not going to work. Better to rip the band-aid off now than suffer through a season languishing at the bottom of the table. The talent is there. The tactics are not. Time for ATL to move on from Frank de Boer.
Heading into MLS matchweek 3, the Western Conference certainly appears to be the stronger division at the top. How do we know such things? Because despite only being two weeks into the season, LITERALLY EVERY SINGLE EASTERN CONFERENCE TEAM HAS DROPPED POINTS.
How is that even possible?
On the Best Coast, the Seattle Sounders, Minnesota (!!!) and LAFC have secured all six available points.
This week’s MLS match-ups will put LAFC to the test, as they find themselves as underdogs traveling to NYCFC. Minnesota are underdogs in a strong road challenge against Zlatan and LA Galaxy. Seattle travels as slight underdogs to play Chicago Fire.
Atlanta United, still struggling under first year manager Frank de Boer, will try to secure their first W of the season at home vs. Philadelphia Union. The New York Red Bulls host perennial bottom dwellers San Jose. These games will be a test for ATL and NYRB depth, as the clubs have played a heavy slate of tough games early this season thanks to the CONCACAF Champions League.
MLS Matchweek 3 Game Odds
All listed odds from FanDuel NJ Sportsbook.
|Chicago Fire +135||Draw +250||Seattle Sounders +195|
|Columbus Crew -135||Draw +260||FC Dallas +390|
|New York Red Bulls -370||Draw +480||San Jose Earthquakes +850|
|Houston Dynamo -155||Draw +310||Vancouver Whitecaps +390|
|Orlando City +110||Draw +270||Montreal Impact +220|
|DC United -150||Draw +290||Real Salt Lake +410|
|LA Galaxy +120||Draw +260||Minnesota United +210|
|FC Cincinnati +140||Draw +250||Portland Timbers +185|
|Toronto FC -145||Draw +300||New England +360|
|Atlanta United -170||Draw +330||Philadelphia Union +410|
|Colorado Rapids +195||Draw +260||Sporting KC +130|
For the first time in the two year history of Atlanta United, boos filled the Mercedes-Benz Stadium after a game.
The boos weren’t necessarily directed at the players though. The jeers were aimed at new manager Frank de Boer and the noticeable change in style, system, and results he’s brought the Five Stripes.
Is it fair? Is it way, way, waaaay too early to judge de Boer?
Let’s debate in a new section called “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” with High Press Soccer site-runner (and Atlanta resident) Chops and MLS writer Harrison Hamm.
Frank de Boer: Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Chops: Put me in the contingent of skeptics of this hire from Day 1. Frank de Boer had a good run at Ajax, yes. Four straight titles, even in the Eredivisie when your only real regular competition is PSV and occasionally Feyenoord, is still a difficult feat. But his incredibly disastrous stints at Inter Milan (oof) and Crystal Palace (double oof) seemed to be a better indicator of what the future held. It’s easy to feel validated from early results.
Harrison Hamm: You’re right that de Boer failed at Inter Milan and Crystal Palace. Those were tiny sample sizes, though, with groups of players that didn’t have time to coalesce around de Boer’s possession system. His six years at Ajax, on the other hand, produced world-class players and those four titles. Atlanta and its emphasis on cultivating and selling on youth is more similar to Ajax than Inter or Crystal Palace. It’s a long-term project.
Chops: I’m totally willing to admit that 1) it’s still early, and even the likes of Klopp and Pep needed a year and a transfer window (or two) to start seeing the kind of results everyone expected, and 2) for the most part, United has faced a difficult schedule. But it’s also irresponsible to ignore how badly de Boer’s last two stops went. I mean, Palace didn’t even score a single league goal. Not one!
Hamm: There are legitimate concerns there. Perhaps, though, this is only an indication of the complexity of de Boer’s system. Players will adapt, and de Boer will figure out how best to deploy them. I’d guess this oddball 3-4-3 he’s been trying will go away sooner rather than later. That his tactics are this difficult to implement is undoubtedly a flaw, but it doesn’t mean Atlanta won’t eventually come around under de Boer.
Chops: To your point, he already shifted the 3-4-3 offensively to create more opportunities on Wednesday against Monterrey. Where he wants to build from the back, ATL just doesn’t have the personnel to play like that. Seriously, Guzan had more possession last night than Josef Martinez. It was nuts. Although adding Florentin Pogba to the backline may help, he looked solid with that ball at his feet (can’t believe I just typed that). And Miles Robinson looked like a poor man’s Virgil van Dijk. Still, I’m grasping at straws. Aside from last night, I was there at the season debut with FC Cincinnati. The early Josef Martinez goal obfuscated how toothless Atlanta’s attack was for the game and their general lack of urgency in general. Counter-attacks were listless. The team looked disinterested and unhappy. You can see it on their faces and in their body language. There was no link-up creativity. Everything that defined United the past two years–that made the city embrace them–was missing.
Hamm: All of that will improve as players figure out what de Boer wants. Pity Martinez looks tentative and out of place, but MLS is a difficult league to decode for foreign players, especially given the rude awakening of Concacaf Champions League. He, along with Ezequiel Barco (at some point!) and others, will adapt. Atlanta is talented enough to scuttle along until de Boer gets what he wants out of this group.
Chops: FdB probably will get a long enough leash to make it work. If Arthur Blank runs ATLUTD the way he runs the Falcons, he’ll give the manager enough time to either hang himself or right the ship. For de Boer apologists, this is a good thing. You’ll have enough time to be proven right. However, with the 1-3 aggregate loss to Monterrey, and no wins in MLS, at what point do results start to matter over process?
Hamm: I think it would become a serious concern at the point that Atlanta are consistently dropping results and looking directionless doing it. I can’t see that happening any time soon, considering the cohesion they brought from last year and de Boer’s pedigree. But fans are restless, and Atlanta’s ambition suggests they could prove quick to the trigger if poor form continues. It’s worth noting, however, that Atlanta had similar issues attacking bunkered shapes last year under Tata Martino. A lot of these difficulties aren’t new.
Chops: The problem there is players hear and see everything now. They now the heat is on de Boer. If they don’t buy in, and right now it doesn’t look like they have, this very quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. One problem they can’t solve is the absence of Miguel Almiron. It’s also become very obvious that Miggy was the the fulcrum of the attack. Pity has potential (I think, still waiting, but small sample size) but he’s not the replacement we thought he’d be (yet) and neither is Barco (who shines in fleeting flashes). Both have high work rates, much like Almiron, but neither have the ball-handling skills or vision that the new Newcastle man has.
To that point, do you think that de Boer needs to bring in new players to fit his system? And can the MLS facilitate that as quickly as the Premier League or La Liga? Isn’t that going to be a problem?
Hamm: I don’t think there’s an urgent personnel need; only at left wingback is there a noticeable gap in quality. They will surely search hard for a splash in the summer transfer window with as much cash as they can muster, given their lack of a DP spot, but this is on de Boer to fix with the players he has, and to prove he is the managerial answer. I’m sure that Atlanta would love to mine Europe for talent at this point in the season, but that will likely have to wait until the summer.
Chops: I certainly hope FdB finds the answers. No true fans want to see him fail (even after he called them “spoiled”). De Boer though needs to be more flexible in his thinking and approach, and tweak his system to suit his players strengths, or the #FDBOUT chorus will just sing louder and louder.
Boos rang down the Mercedes-Benz stadium after Atlanta United drew expansion club FC Cincinnati 1-1- on Sunday.
As far as any fans can remember, there has never been boos after an Atlanta United game.
The boos weren’t directed at the players. Atlanta fans love their team to a degree no other MLS city can really claim. The boos were fans expressing dissatisfaction with this new style of Five Stripes play and more specifically, at the new manager, Frank de Boer.
A Blown Lead, Uninspired Play
The game started as good as fans could hope. ATL went up in the fifth minute on a pinpoint Josef Martinez strike coming from a spot on feed from Julian Gressel.
Feels good to be home 😎
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) March 10, 2019
The 1-0 lead acted as make-up on the ugly face of an uninspiring game. On paper, United dominated the match. They played a possession-heavy game (66-34%) and out-shot Cincinnati 10 (4 on target) to 4 (1 on target). But Atlanta generated fewer quality opportunities as the game dragged on. They engaged in a very ticky-tacky possession game with aspiring opportunities coming from direct play. Creative link-ups were non-existent. Counter-attacks were toothless, lacking numbers and quality.
Worse, the players didn’t look like they were enjoying the new system.
It all came crashing down in the 86th minute when Roland Lamah broke free from a disorganized backline and buried his strike, tying the game 1-1 and silencing the announced crowd of just over 70,000.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 10, 2019
On a night when United unveiled its 2018 MLS Cup banner, the end result couldn’t be more disappointing. Atlanta were the heaviest favorites among all MLS squads this week (-240). The talent is there. The support is there. A system that works is not.
Shades of Mourinho and Sarri
Yes, it’s early. Losses away to Monterrey and DC United can be brushed off. Both are quality squads (and in Monterrey’s case, probably the best in North America). A tie at home against expansion FC Cincinnati, not so much. United are playing less than the sum of their parts right now, and that’s on de Boer.
As Paul Tenorio from The Athletic pointed out:
There should always be concern when a coach comes in with a formation/system in mind instead of looking at the strengths of the squad he inherits and working accordingly. De Boer deserves time to figure it out, but it just feels like he isn’t amplifying #ATLUTD‘s strengths.
— Paul Tenorio (@PaulTenorio) March 10, 2019
De Boer is implementing a system that doesn’t fit his players. He hasn’t adapted yet. The players don’t appear to be enjoying playing for de Boer. This all feels like Jose Mourinho at Manchester United or Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea. De Boer has taken a system that wasn’t broke (far from it) and made it worse, mostly by ignoring some things that made that personnel successful.
The critics of the de Boer hire that pointed to his stints at Inter Milan and Crystal Palace are being given plenty of fodder. It doesn’t help when de Boer, in post game comments, says that Atlanta fans have been “spoiled” and to not expect “similar results” this season.
A Few Bright Spots
Josef Martinez’s finish was legit. Julian Gressel was strong early. Ezequiel Barco looked great off ball with some interesting runs. Unfortunately, he was rarely delivered the ball on those runs. Eighteen year-old sub Andrew Carleton looked like Adam Lallana-lite, with boundless energy and interesting runs. Unfortunately, again, teammates haven’t developed either the chemistry or awareness to link up with them yet.
Other than that, this is a major work in progress. Nothing short of a (highly unlikely) mid-week rebound in the CONCACAF Champions League will go to silence a growing chorus of de Boer doubters.
The 2019 MLS season got underway last week. We learned some things, some things stayed the same.
The New York Red Bulls played their B team to save legs for the CONCACAF Champions League; NYCFC stumbled to a 2-2 draw; Atlanta United looked poor with Frank de Boer, losing 2-0 to a might-be-a-contender DC United; and Zlatan did Zlatan things (read 5 more things learned during Matchweek 1 here).
How does 2019 MLS Matchweek 2 look? Let’s examine the lines and some things to watch.
2019 MLS Matchweek 2 Game Odds
All listed odds from FanDuel NJ Sportsbook.
|Chicago Fire -130||Draw +290||Orlando City +320|
|New England Revolution +135||Draw +250||Columbus Crew +190|
|FC Dallas -145||Draw +320||LA Galaxy +340|
|Houston Dynamo +105||Draw +260||Montreal Impact +230|
|Real Salt Lake -150||Draw +310||Vancouver Whitecaps +380|
|San Jose Earthquakes +135||Draw +250||Minnesota United +190|
|Seattle Sounders -210||Draw +360||Colorado +500|
|NYCFC -125||Draw +280||DC United +320|
|Sporting KC -135||Draw +300||Philadelphia Union +330|
|Atlanta United -240||Draw +390||Cincinnati +550|
|LAFC -140||Draw +300||Portland Timbers +340|
MLS Matchweek 2 Odds and Ins
Week 1 surprisingly saw only three odds on favorites. Matchweek 2 doubles that total to six. Some notes:
- NYCFC finds themselves at -125 (so bet $125 to win $100) at home against a potentially strong DC United (+320, so bet $100 to win $320) squad. With Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta picking up right where they left off from last year, there may be some value there with DCU. It’ll be interesting to see if NYCFC’s Alexandru Mitrita builds on a promising debut in front of the home crowd.
- Maybe it’s more of a hunch, but we think LA Galaxy is going to have a strong, playoff-caliber year. Priced at +340, even on the road against FC Dallas, are longer odds than they may deserve. Plus, you know, Zlatan.
- Oddly, we may know a lot about Atlanta United (this week’s biggest favorite at -240) after this weekend’s match against expansion FC Cincinatti (biggest dog at +550). Another poor de Boer showing and the #DeBoerOut movement will grow exponentially. Perhaps giving the team some run back in Tata Martino’s successful 3-5-2 system (instead of the 3-4-3 that’s definitely not working) will snap United out of its early funk. If de Boer has learned anything from his previous two wildly unsuccessful stops at Inter and Palace, it might be to not stubbornly stick with something that’s not working–especially when you know something will work with the personnel you have.
Is it too soon to admit that Frank de Boer might not have been the right hire for Atlanta United?
With a 3-0 loss to Monterrey on Wednesday in the CONCACAF Champions League, his start at Atlanta United has been far from inspiring.
Full disclosure: I’m in the camp that thought this was a dreadful hire the second it was announced. I appreciate the measured take by writers like J. Sam Jones at DirtySouthSoccer. It’s the right way to view it. Wider lens. However, this is a situation where you can have opinions on both sides of the argument and still be right.
While de Boer’s (super) brief tenures at Inter Milan (yikes) and Crystal Palace (YIKES!) were certainly reasons for skepticism, the more substantive take had to do with how his coaching philosophy and system might not have been the best fit for the personnel the team had. This was an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” situation. Poor de Boer wasn’t set up for immediate success. And if immediate success didn’t happen, a viscous confirmation loop was going to start among those who care more about his recent history (me me me!) than his (distant) past success–and a rabid fan-base who may not have the patience to see if de Boer can make it work.
Typically when coaching changes are made, organizations go for the polar opposite of the previous coach. That’s because most coaching changes are made because that previous coach wasn’t succeeding.
Not the case with the Five Stripes.
But here were are. Tata was loose. FdB is strick. Tata started practices late sometimes. FdB considers five minutes early to be late. Tata came from recent success. FdB not so much.
Atlanta Has Earned Benefit of Doubt…Right?
Atlanta United has gotten just about everything right since its inception. They deserve the benefit of the doubt. They’ve earned it.
New coaches and systems don’t click overnight.
However, the players and the system did work fantastically the past two years.
All but one of their key players is back (caveat: the key player who left, Miguel Almiron, was the MLS’s best player and has transformed Newcastle United since arriving on record-transfer). One player brought in, Pity Martinez, is a moderate facsimile to Almiron. The emergence of Ezequiel Barco (looks legit) is almost like adding a new player. The talent is there. The drop off shouldn’t be significant if the players buy into de Boer’s system.
But if the results aren’t there as they were last year, will they actually buy in?
Is It Fair to Judge de Boer Against Recent Opponents?
Timing is so important in every element in life. FdB wasn’t given the easiest early slate.
In the CONCACAF Champions League, he drew Monterrey in the quarterfinals. Monterrey is literally the best team on the continent.
While FiveThirtyEight might want to tweak their prediction algorithm, their Global Club Rankings is still a valuable tool. Monterrey ranks 96th, the highest Liga MX team and by far higher than the New York Red Bulls (187) and Atlanta United (196). Monterrey is ranked higher than Brighton, Fulham, and Cardiff City in the Premier League. Atlanta shouldn’t beat them. It should be closer, though. Sure, United led possession 51-49%, but Monterrey fired off 17 shots (5 on target) to Atlanta’s 5 shots (1 on target). Reigning MVP Josef Martinez’s work rate looked like LeBron playing defense for the Lakers. Despite all of this, the game was still close until the end. This is where de Boer having a better feel for his team would come in handy. As Joe Patrick at The Athletic noted:
The substitution pattern (or lackthereof) was very strange tonight and I think you can legitimately question whether it cost Atlanta at least one of the last two goals. But more credit should be given to Atlanta for frustrating Rayados and hanging tough for 80 minutes.
— Joe Patrick (@japatrick200) March 7, 2019
In the MLS, the Five Stripes started their season away against a strong DC United squad. The 2-0 loss was disappointing, but its not like they were playing Orlando.
Where Does It Go From Here?
I’m in Atlanta. This city has real pride when it comes to the Five Stripes. The team is loaded with talent. While United owner Arthur Blank has shown patience when it comes to coaches and his Falcons, will he take the same approach with Frank de Boer if the Five Stripes keep laying eggs?
The good news for United fans is: there’s almost nowhere to go but up from here, and the talent is there. Hopefully de Boer is watching Maurizio Sarri‘s struggles at Chelsea and learning that being rigid and not adapting systems to players isn’t always the best approach to success.
Gone are arguably last year’s best overall player (Miguel Almiron, sold to Newcastle in a record deal) and coach (Tata Martino).
While the de Boer hiring has equal chances of turning out to be brilliant or disastrous, let’s focus on the positive for now. We’ll welcome de Boer to his domestic league debut by showcasing one of his playing career highlights, i.e. that pass he made as a center-back to Dennis Bergkamp. Damn.
Also read: 2019 MLS Cup Odds