What's wrong with Atlanta United? Even worse than bad is it's boring

A few thoughts after MLS's Week 2 ...

1. If you have been around American pro soccer long enough, you know that the only thing worse than being bad is being boring.

Growing a sport without natural fan bases required leagues to go out of their way to attract the novice fan, and all sorts of gimmicks were introduced to make soccer more exciting in the early days -- from the bonus system the NPSL used in 1967 and NASL copied in 1968 to the 35-yard offside line, which the NASL instituted in 1972 to open up space for creative players and continued to use until 1981 when FIFA ordered it to be dropped.

When it launched in 1996, MLS passed on the bonus system -- one point up to three points per game for each goal scored in addition to six points for a win -- but has used its control over spending to encourage attacking play by selectively introducing exceptions to the salary cap like the DP rule and TAM and GM. With the influx of TAM, in particular, scoring has gone up, topping three goals a game in 2018.

Atlanta United took everything to a new level, on the field and off, when it entered MLS, breaking a league record for most goals by an expansion team in a season with 70 goals in 2017 and matching that number in 2018 when it won the league title. Only four other teams have scored more goals in a season in the entire 24-year history of the league.

All that makes the Five Stripes' slow start to the 2019 season so shocking. They've not only been bad -- two losses in three games in the Concacaf Champions League and one loss and one tie in two MLS games -- but they've been boring, leading to a spate of "Frank de Bore" jokes about their new head coach, Dutchman Frank de Boer.

Atlanta United was only two weeks into its competitive season and a #DeBoerOut campaign popped up. After Sunday's 1-1 tie with expansion FC Cincinnati, De Boer was asked for his reaction to the criticism about Atlanta United's start.

“Everybody was spoiled with the results of last season," he said, "so everyone has expectations, and that’s normal, but everybody also saw what happened with Toronto FC when they played in the Champions League last season."

In Atlanta United's first two seasons, it also lost its season opener -- 2-1 at home to the New York Red Bulls in 2017 and 4-0 at Houston in 2018 -- but quickly regrouped, running off a four-game unbeaten streak in 2017 and four-game winning streak in 2018. That's why the result of the second MLS game against FC Cincinnati -- a team that had been demolished at Seattle in its opener -- was so concerning.

De Boer said his players were still giving 100 percent despite playing their fifth game in 17 days on Sunday, but it wasn't a good look that Atlanta United gave up two goals in the last nine minutes in Monterrey and turned a 1-0 away defeat -- "a very good result," said De Boer -- into a 3-0 defeat and it conceded the tying goal to FC Cincinnati's Roland Lamah in the 85th minute on Sunday.

De Boer arrived in January stressing how important it will be to rotate the team -- Atlanta United almost ran out of gas at the end of the 2018 regular season -- so it is surprising he has made so few lineup changes.

“This is the first home game," he said after Sunday's tie. "You want to be as strong as possible. There’s almost 73,000 people in the stadium and we had a loss of course in the first game against D.C. so you want a good result. You think maybe you might do some rotation but for me the most important thing and getting a boost to the next game. Sometimes you have to risk those things. A home game, everyone wants to see Gonzalo [Pity Martinez]. That’s normal. That’s why we put him in.”

That still doesn't explain the lack of ideas in the Atlanta United attack. Two changes have been made since last season:

-- De Boer replaced the 3-5-2 formation Tata Martino used and installed a 3-4-3; and
-- Miguel Almiron was sold to Newcastle United and Martinez was acquired from River Plate.

What the first five games have shown is how much Atlanta United misses Almiron with his open-field play and link-up with Josef Martinez -- the kind of work that is essential in MLS and also so important to Miggy's early success in the EPL.

So far, Pity Martinez hasn't been much of a factor, not for a lack of trying. He was targeted by Monterrey -- fouled 10 times -- and taken out of the first leg. He said he was used to being fouled in Argentina but surprised by the level of fouling in the CCL.

He'll be joining Argentina next week for its friendlies against Venezuela and Morocco, so it could be several more weeks before he is fully focused on Atlanta United's MLS campaign. At that point, assessing de Boer's Atlanta United will begin in earnest.

2. As teams introduce or give more playing time to young Homegrown Players -- U.S. U-20 Paxton Pomykal had a great outing for FC Dallas on Saturday and 16-year-old Gianluca Busio started for Sporting KC on Sunday -- the SuperDraft is quickly becoming irrelevant.

After two weeks, the top four picks in the 2019 SuperDraft have yet to even dress. And in Week 2, only one 2019 SuperDraft pick started: Orlando City's Kamal Miller, taken in the second round. Four other picks -- Hassani Dotson (Minnesota United), Andre Shinyashiki (Colorado), Peter-Lee Vassell (LAFC) and Tajon Buchanan (New England) -- played a combined 43 minutes, almost half by Vassell, a Jamaican discovered in the Caribbean combine.

After a year of grooming, you'd think more draft picks would get a chance, but only two 2018 draft picks -- New England's Brandon Bye and Chicago's Diego Campos -- started this weekend. Two other players, Colorado's Nike Jackson and Orlando City's Chris Mueller, played a combined six minutes.

Photos: Atlanta United

15 comments about "What's wrong with Atlanta United? Even worse than bad is it's boring".
  1. John Soares, March 11, 2019 at 8:03 a.m.

    OK, good points but a little harsh:)
    New coach, some new players, high...perhaps unrealistic expectations.
    Give the guy...maybe 10 games!?
    One thing I totally agree with you.
    Nothing worse than boring soccer.
    If you must lose, do it with gusto!

  2. Wooden Ships, March 11, 2019 at 8:10 a.m.

    For Atlanta, it will be hard to replicate the excitement of last year and Almiron was instrumental in that run (of play). The de boer change is the greatest effect. Could be wrong, but ownership got it wrong. Damnit, this is business and there’s no fun in business-sport. 

  3. Gary Levitt, March 11, 2019 at 8:45 a.m.

    From my weekly blog posted before yesterday's dismal draw:

    Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer, in his first year after replacing wildly popular Tata Martino, is from the Netherlands. He brings strong credentials as a successful manager winning championships with Dutch club Ajax. Former manager Tata Martino came to #AtlantaUnited with a great resume as well, and brought to the team both an open and aggressive style of play and what I will call the 'Papa' syndrome. Tata was tough and aggressive with his players as well as showing tremendous enthusiasm and leadership. The difference between these two managers, along with Atlanta United's ridiculous schedule, and the departure of Miguel Almiron, has led to some poor results early on. Atlanta United's player pool, and specifically their usual starting eleven, is made up of young and talented South Americans. Frank de Boer, coming from the Netherlands, has brought an ethos of discipline and directness to Atlanta United that may be yielding, in the short term, diminishing returns. From my standpoint and my experience playing in Miami, the South and Central American coaches I played for, due to the nationality of most of my teammates, never really spoke about pure discipline and 'keeping your shape (formation)' on the field. What they expressed, with the passion and enthusiasm ingrained in most South American coaches, was free and open play, pressuring all over the field, and the attitude of no risk, no reward. Are Atlanta United's players, especially the South Americans, having an 'allergic' reaction to de Boer's European style, discipline, and attitude? Only time will tell, but as my father always told me, no matter what you do and what you say: "know your audience".

  4. frank schoon, March 11, 2019 at 9:48 a.m.

    I watched the game and I was bored. I actually turned the channel to watch college basketball for a few minutes. I will hold back my opinion on De Boer for right now for you have to give him time, due  the injuries, 5 games in 17days, missing Almiron, and the team's composition has changed. I like to see the team play at full strength. It's the beginning of the season, so lets give it time.
    The positive aspect about De Boer's presence is that the American players are finally getting taught possession oriented soccer, which is a major weakness in our game , it will definitely add to the DNA of American soccer. We don't have coaches here who understand how to play possession style soccer. It forces players to think more, look more, and be more aware of where the ball should go. These are aspects I'm happy with that are subtly introduced in to the American game. And in a way, this will aid Berhalter's MNT. In other words, I see DeBoer style of coaching aiding American soccer in the long run. We've had too much Hillbilly ball, counter attacking, brainless soccer and finally now we're beginning introduce a much needed new input into our style of soccer, which will takes time to settle in. NEXT POST

  5. George Miller replied, March 18, 2019 at 7:12 a.m.

    Hillybilly soccer? You mean like liverpool’s 
    counter ot leister city that won a premier title. They are not just hitting it long
    it’s an accurate pass and it is ecxciting

  6. frank schoon, March 11, 2019 at 10:20 a.m.

    If you look at Guardiola's, Bayern Munchen and Barcelona, etc., he had good wings and therefore his possession oriented soccer is not boring. This is what Atlanta is missing and he needs to get rid the 3-4-3 system and play 4-3-3. I also find Gonzales Pirez, the left back, "Horrible". I don't know if that is his regular position, but his initial pass out the backfield is not good, too many bad passes  leading to interceptions which you can't afford when playing a 3 back system. The lefthalf, Shea, is forced to play a very conservative game, making sure not to lose the ball in his actions. His passes and actions are slow. As a matter of fact, I find the passing coming from the backfield and midfield too slow. Although I'm happy we're able to cross the ball with the leftfoot (Shea), we have to realize the people he is crossing to in front of the goal, are not tall and  are much better with the ball at their feet and not with the head. Furthermore, too many of Shea's passes are backwards or square. Other than not losing losing, slow in passing or his limited movements, he does make decent crosses.
    I did notice a lot of bad passes by Atlanta and that is due to perhaps the players are new to this possession type of game and have to get use it before they get into flow of things; but I find there were just too many of them, currently.
     I prefer Atlanta to play a 433, with tricky wingers who are also able as well to make quick give and go passes in the opponent's third that Shea simply is unble to do. Furthermore we need a quicker ,faster than Shea, lefthalf who is able to play and connect better with Martinez , the goal scorer..

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, March 12, 2019 at midnight

    Possession (I prefer the label positional play) requires patience, persistence and discipline. Even Guardiola doesn't get it working at a new club overnight. As you point out, it is an investment in the future of US Soccer.

    Did you get a chance to watch LAFC against Portland. At times they played out of the back straight up the middle. Lots of diagonal passing instead of north south. They were not consistent about it, but it was encouraging.  

  8. frank schoon replied, March 12, 2019 at 9:19 a.m.

    Bob , I didn't watch it but I will look at LAFC when it comes. Did you notice the amount of bad passes by Atlanta, because the players are not used to playing controlled ball. The Fin Jari Litmanen who played for Ajax and who took over Bergkamps position, stated that in his first year with Ajax he would get headaches because he had to think so much, especially when it comes to passing, the kind of pass had to be made so the receiver won't be extra burdened, the right velocity, to which foot it should go, and when the pass should be made and how the pass it made to speed the game up. Everything had to right..
    THis is why de Boer with Atlanta is a project in the making. I just hope they obtain a couple tricky wingers...

  9. frank schoon replied, March 12, 2019 at 9:34 a.m.

    Bob,  REad this article in the Guardian about Landon Donovan..

    Landon Donovan's eccentric career: 'I try not to just accept everything society says' | Football | The Guardian

    Now you can better understand why Klinsman and he clashed.. Landon never had a love for the game. He had talent but real no connection to soccer. I never understood Landon's actions. I felt  he didn't have it in his heart for soccer: there was something else that was going on with him....

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, March 12, 2019 at 3:33 p.m.

    You are missing what he said in the interview. He didn't care about any of the glitter and stardom. He just loved to play. He also said that is why he left Germany the first time--because he wasn't playing enough. It is difficult for me to believe that someone who came back from retirement twice, doesn't love playing.

    Donovan has the typical American attitude of disrepsect for authority and JK is the typical German that expects unquestioned loyalty to authority. We are a nation born of revolution. Not anything special or surprising about that. German's typically keep their attitudes buried even when they don't respect someone in charge.

    If I understand correctly the Dutch have a bit of rebel in their popular culture too. 

  11. frank schoon replied, March 12, 2019 at 4:10 p.m.

     Bob, his statement<,"I just liked playing the game. So there was no, ‘Oh, if I could play for Manchester United’ – that never came into my head"> Many kids "Like" a sport doesn't imply  that he  loved playing the sport. In fact he neither had  dreams about being a great player, and/or idolizing to a great soccer player nor felt a history for the game ,at all. There is something missing in his development.  That is why it is not surprising he quit twice. That he came back says not so much about the love for the game  but perhaps  more about being bored , for that's is he really knew  He's is not a strong personality, he's not a fighter which is also needed to be great .  I understand exactly how Klinsman felt about him. There is more than just having talent to become a good soccer player. You'll find tons of kids on the streets of Amsterdam who were talents at Ajax but lacked other important ingredients like you have to have a "strong mentality, imbued  with an inner  toughness of fight within you. And in those characteristics is where Landon failed. And this is what Klinsman saw in him

  12. frank schoon replied, March 12, 2019 at 4:21 p.m.

    Bob, I don't consider Landon a rebel, and you're about the dutch rebel aspect in their culture. But Cruyff would have done the same thing with Landon as Klinsman. Cruyff believed in discipline, order, and most important your individuality has to fit in within the team. 
    I wouldn't romantize American revolution, rebellion, and individuality as a way explaining of Landon's actions... I see him more as a mixed up kid that didn't have what it takes.

  13. Bob Ashpole replied, March 12, 2019 at 4:47 p.m.

    You hit on what I loved most about the game--the contrast balancing of initiative and discipline.   

  14. frank schoon replied, March 12, 2019 at 7:49 p.m.

    Bob, you’re so right. That’s what is so fascinating about this game

  15. don Lamb, March 11, 2019 at 11:03 a.m.

    The author could have tied points 1 and 2 together by mentioning Andrew Carleton. 1. He makes ATL much better, and they desparately need his creativity and ability to possess the ball in the attacking third, and he is 2. One of the promising homegrown players in the US youth system.

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