Things weren’t as bad as they may have seemed in Atlanta United’s 3-1 loss to Columbus on Saturday in the Carolina Challenge Cup in Charleston.
Manager Gerardo Martino said there were more positives than negatives and pointed out that Columbus played them the same way, with the same eventual result, in last season’s final game MLS playoff loss.
“If you remember, last year, against the same team the same thing happened to us,” he said. “First, the team’s just missing … we just need more time together.”
Though Atlanta United appeared to dominate possession, and created more chances, Columbus’ chances proved better and its press limited what the Five Stripes were able to do with their possession.
As a result, Atlanta United’s goal didn’t come until the game’s final seconds when Josef Martinez played a short pass to Miguel Almiron for an easy goal. Pedro Santos, Cristian Martinez and a fluke Josef Martinez own goal were Columbus’ goals.
It was just Atlanta United’s second preseason game, and the first in conditions that were actually playable after last week’s rain-drenched affair in Nashville. Columbus has already played a few preseason games.
“You can tell it’s still early for us,” midfielder Julian Gressel said. “Those games help a lot to move in the right direction. Those little things will come.
Atlanta United wore its new kits.
Here are five observations about the game.
1. Columbus’ goals. Martino said Columbus’ goals were the result of Atlanta United’s mistakes. Martinez’s own goal, which came when he tried to clear a corner kick with his head, only to see the ball bounce off the side of his head and into the corner of Brad Guzan’s goal, was obviously a mistake.
Columbus’ first goal, scored by Santos in the 13th minute, came because Federico Higuain was given space 20 yards from goal in the middle of the pitch. Instead of stepping up to close him down, defensive midfielder Chris McCann dropped back between centerbacks Jeff Larentowicz and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. Larentowicz then moved up to pressure Higuain. As Larentowicz moved up, Santos moved into that vacated space and Higuain made the short pass for the easy goal.
On the second goal, which came on a 40-yard chip by Cristian Martinez, Atlanta United had just taken a free kick 19 yards from Columbus’ goal. Almiron’s free kick went right to Zack Steffen, who quickly threw the ball to a teammate. That player split two Atlanta United lines with a long pass to Martinez, who looked up, saw Guzan was way off his line because of the free kick on the other end, and hit the chip. He said he’s never scored a goal like that before.
Martino said Atlanta United’s players didn’t rotate properly on the goal. When the defenders moved up to be possible targets for Almiron’s free kick, other players were supposed to drop back to cover the vacated spaces. Those players didn’t.
“That’s where the important error was,” Martino said. “We just looked at the replay in the locker room.”
2. Columbus press. The Crew were able to contain Atlanta United’s attack by an aggressive press that coach Gregg Berhalter said focused on stopping one particular player.
“The key guy is still Almiron,” he said. “He’s a fantastic player. You have to limit him. If you can move quick enough you can contain them. if you don’t, they take advantage of that.
“I told the team at halftime that if we don’t press with full intensity we are going to win the ball. they are too good. When we pressed them hard, we won the ball. When we didn’t it was difficult. That’s the key to Atlanta.”
The press, and Atlanta United’s rustiness, contributed to an attack that was just a half-second off on its final pass or through ball.
“If we get an opponent like that, that can press us high, that can go the 90 minutes and don’t fall apart like maybe Nashville did a little bit, it’s a good test that gets us ready,” Gressel said. “Those games help us definitely moving forward.”
Martino, Gressel and Gonzalez Pirez expressed confidence that the timing would return. Gonzalez Pirez said most of training camp has been spent working on conditioning and that the team would soon began working more on tactics.
“What we should work on is capitalizing on our chances in the final third of the field,” Martino said. “Number of chances we got into the final third or quarter. We need to work on making the right final decision.”
3. Atlanta United’s press. Martino was pleased with both his team’s press and the energy displayed by the players throughout the game.
Though the team was without four presumed starters – Hector Villalba, Franco Escobar, Michael Parkhurst and Greg Garza – who were held out for precautionary reasons, the team’s press was consistent and remained so as the subs came on.
“We pressed very well and for long periods against one of the best teams of getting out of a press in the league,” Martino said. “Even though we were down 2-0, in the second half we didn’t let them create any chances.”
4. Barco’s performance. Ezequiel Barco is going to receive scrutiny because Atlanta United paid $15 million, the largest transfer fee in MLS history, to acquire him from Independiente in Argentina.
With that scrutiny is unreasonable expectation.
Some MLS followers went onTwitter Saturday night postulating that Andrew Carleton, Atlanta United’s first Homegrown signing, may be better than Barco.
Setting aside that Barco is 18 years old, in a new country, in a new culture, in a new league, in a new team, with new teammates, playing for a new manager and that it’s just his second game, he played well.
It was easy to see what he was attempting to do with some of his passes. That they didn’t come off can be chalked up to that he’s still developing chemistry with his teammates and fitness after he stopped training with his former club to force the sale to Atlanta United.
It was obvious that Barco and his new teammates are still learning each other. Early in the first half, Barco switched to the middle, where he received a pass, and continued to move right. Gressel made a run down the right. Barco dribbled toward him and was trying to setup a pass. Gressel eventually stopped his run just as Barco made the pass. After the ball rolled out of out of bounds, Barco motioned to Gressel that he wanted him to keep going at a sharper angle toward the goal.
During another sequence on the left, Mikey Ambrose was trying to overlap Barco, who attempted a backheel pass that missed the streaking Ambrose and rolled out of bounds.
Barco’s tackling does need work. It could best be described as awkward.
“They are both growing,” Martino said of newcomers Barco and Darlington Nagbe. “Barco is getting his fitness up. Today he got a lot of minutes. They are both progressing.”
5. What’s next. Atlanta United will take on Minnesota United on Wednesday in the next game in the tournament. Minnesota was beaten by Charleston 1-0 in Saturday’s second game. Atlanta United and Minnesota United split their two meetings last season. Minnesota United features former Atlanta United player Tyrone Mears and Harrison Heath.