Atlanta United was defeated 4-0 by Houston on Saturday. (Atlanta United)

Houston 4, Atlanta United 0: Five observations

Not exactly how Atlanta United intended to open its second season.

The Five Stripes were beaten by counter-attacks. They were beaten by set pieces. They were beaten to 50-50 balls. And, they beat themselves by not finishing the chances they created, including a missed penalty kick.

“Everything went wrong because we played terribly,” centerback Michael Parkhurst said. “Second-best on the day in every department. Do that on the road against a very good team, this is what happens.”

From the curious starting lineup to an inability to stop Houston from doing the things that it did well last season (set pieces and counter-attacks), the Five Stripes surrendered more goals in the disastrous first half than they allowed in any game last season.

“After the first four minutes, I didn’t think the game would go like that,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said.

The blitz started with a goal in the fifth minute following an Atlanta United mistake and continued with two more in the 23rd and 27th minutes following more mistakes and ended in injury time in the first half because of yet another error.

The performance had midfielder Julian Gressel at a loss for words, incapable of answering why things went so wrong so quickly.

“I can’t answer the question because I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t really know what to say or how to answer it. It just happened.”

Here are five observations about the result:

1. The starting lineup. Martino made several interesting choices with the lineup.

There were three players who are considered starters but who started just one preseason game because they were overcoming injuries: Franco Escobar, Hector Villalba and Parkhurst.

Two of those players, Villalba and Escobar, started on Saturday. Parkhurst didn’t. He said he was told on Friday that he wouldn’t start. He said he feels fine.

With Parkhurst not starting, Martino elected to keep Jeff Larentowicz paired with Leandro Gonzalez Pirez as the centerbacks. They started the first three preseason games when Parkhurst was out. They also played together a few times last season.

But starting Larentowicz as a centerback meant that he couldn’t play defensive midfielder, which is probably his better position. That resulted in starting Chris McCann and Darlington Nagbe in those positions with Gressel pushed from the right side of the midfield, where he started three of the preseason games, into the middle. He said he has trained there during the preseason. McCann played as a defensive midfielder during the season, but actually got more playing time last season as the left fullback. As the dominoes continued to fall, Miguel Almiron moved from the middle to the left, where Ezequiel Barco is supposed to play. Barco, of course, sustained a quad injury in training on Tuesday and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks. Martino said he thought it was better to put Almiron on the left than Villalba or Nagbe.

Martino said they wanted to play three central midfielders to keep the game from “going up and down, up and down.”

So, the 11 who started featured two new starters in Escobar and Nagbe, and four players in positions that they didn’t play a lot last season.

“We had to change the scheme two days before the game with Barco’s injury, we had to change our formation,” Garza said. “We weren’t really able to train that way the entire preseason. That was a big blow, not only to lose him, but to try to change formation, guys in different positions that aren’t used to playing there. … You could definitely tell that on the field.”

2. The mistakes. Did those changes contribute to the mistakes that led to the four goals? It’s impossible to tell.

Cataloging them:

On the first goal, Houston centerback Phillipe Senderos hit a long clearance down the right side of the field to no one in particular. Gonzalez Pirez thought that goaltender Brad Guzan was going to come out and claim the ball, even though it was just outside the penalty box. Guzan didn’t, which left Gonzalez Pirez stuck between trying to decide if he should get the ball, or try to shield the very fast Albert Elis from getting it. Gonzalez Pirez tried to do both and succeeded at neither. Elis ran around him, knocked him to the ground and hit a cross that Andrew Wenger tapped in for the goal.

On the second goal, Villalba turned over the ball near midfield with a bad pass backward. The pass led to a Dynamo counter-attack that Guzan stopped with a save, which led to a corner kick. Houston took a short corner, with the ball whipped across the penalty box. Larentowicz was marking Senderos. Elis moved in and picked Larentowicz, giving Senderos a one-step head start to attack the cross. No one picked him up. He headed the ball for a goal.

On the third goal, Houston passed right through the center of the defense for a too-easy goal by Mauro Manotas in the 27th minute. There wasn’t an obvious mistake, but the lack of movement could have been the result of poor communication.

Martino said it was tough to answer after the game if the team had enough speed in the defensive triangle held by Gonzalez Pirez, Larentowicz and McCann in front of the goal.

On the fourth goal, on another Houston corner kick, Guzan came out and tried to palm away a cross to the back post. He wasn’t able to get enough to punch away the ball, which instead fell near the middle of the penalty box. Darwin Ceren pounced for the goal.

Often, Atlanta United’s defenders found themselves isolated one-on-one on defense, according to Parkhurst.

“We need to do a better job denying players the ball,” Parkhurst said. 

The key to that is more communication, commitment and desire, he said.

The team did show more of that in the second half, which is something the players said they can build on for next week.

3. The injury. As if the first half was bad enough, Gonzalez Pirez was forced to leave with what was later said to be a hip contusion. Martino didn’t know if Gonzalez Pirez will miss practice time or need a deeper examination of the hip.

The injury occurred when Gonzalez Pirez threw himself in front of the rampaging Elis to stop another Dynamo counter-attack. It appeared that Elis’ knee hit Gonzalez Pirez in his right hip. 

After grabbing his hip, he sat on the pitch. The trainers examined him. He came back into the game. A few minutes later, after sliding to kick away a ball in the penalty box, he stayed on ground.

Parkhurst replaced him.

If Gonzalez Pirez can’t start Sunday’s home-opening game against D.C. United, Parkhurst will likely be paired with Larentowicz as the centerbacks. Though Escobar can play centerback, the only other natural centerback on the roster is Miles Robinson, who has yet to appear in an MLS game after being selected No. 2 in last year’s SuperDraft.

That would mean that Larentowicz can’t return to defensive midfield, where he thrived last year being paired with Carlos Carmona.

4. The offense. As poorly as the defense played for the first 45 minutes, Atlanta United did create chances on offense. Martino noted that he thought they created as many chances as the Dynamo. The Five Stripes had as many shots (13) as Houston. It just couldn’t finish any of them. That’s because Houston put 10 of its shots on goal. Atlanta United had just two.

The decision to start Almiron on the left did give him space to maneuver within the offense, but he seemed most effective when he drifted into the middle, which is where he experienced success last season in being considered an MVP until sidelined late in the season by an injury. He and Josef Martinez came close several times to cracking open Houston’s defense, but couldn’t.

What definitely didn’t work were the 20 crosses that Atlanta United pumped into Houston’s box, where the 5-foot-7 Martinez was tasked with trying to beat two central defenders and a goalkeeper who were each at least 6-feet tall.

Nagbe had some influence on the game. He completed almost 90 percent of his passes and was credited with creating four chances.

Garza and Escobar’s overlaps resulted in just one chance created.

5. What’s next. Psychologically, Garza said the best thing would be to wipe the slate clean and move on to preparing for D.C. United.

“Completely forget and for us the season starts next week,” he said.

Parkhurst said the team must forget the hype it received as a possible MLS Cup favorite.

“That means nothing in this league until you go out and prove it,” he said.

Physically, Martino said the team must train to improve maintaining possession. Though Atlanta United maintained 59.1 percent of possession, it wasn’t able to exploit that advantage.

Secondly, Martino said they have to work on their transition defense. The mistakes that Atlanta United would make in possession frequently led to Houston counter-attacks.

Martino didn’t seem as concerned about the set-piece defending, saying that comes down to correcting individual mistakes.

“The good thing is we can only get better,” Gressel said.

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