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Atlanta United doesn’t need better defenders to dominate MLS

Atlanta lost its best defensive midfielder unexpectedly this offseason and couldn’t replace him. The club can still improve its defense, just in an unconventional way: by attacking more aggressively.

Toronto FC v Atlanta United FC Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There is no difference between a 5-4 win and a 1-0 win in the standings, besides a seldom used goals scored tiebreaker. The only real difference is what a team makes of those results emotionally. The former is often thought of as something random, akin to winning the lottery. The latter is usually portrayed as more controlled.

Consider, also, different types of goals. If a team concedes on a counter where the attacking team has a numerical advantage and one of the defenders slips and falls, fans of the defending team might feel like their team has failed miserably. If the same team concedes at the end of a 40-pass sequence by the attacking team, or from a blast into the top corner, its fans might be much less upset. But a goal is a goal, no matter how it’s scored.

Strip the value judgments away from types of wins and types of goals for a second — a team that scores significantly more goals than it concedes will win games, and a team that wins a lot of games is a good team that will have a chance to win trophies. That’s the point of professional soccer, right?

Atlanta United will score more than it concedes, and it will win games. It will scare its fans every week, and its lowlights will invite mockery, but it can be one of the best teams in MLS anyway.

The Five Stripes far exceeded expectations in its first MLS season, putting on a show with 70 goals scored en route to a playoff appearance. That performance set new expectations for season two — anything less than a playoff appearance would be unacceptable. With MLS record signing Ezequiel Barco and USMNT midfielder Darlington Nagbe joining MVP candidates Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez in attack, Atlanta really should be competing to win a trophy.

Goals were not difficult for Atlanta to come by last season and there’s no reason to believe that 2018 will be any different. Adding to its impressive 70-goal haul is certainly possible, but will be very difficult. Significant improvement, then, is predicated on the Atlanta defense getting better. The club’s offseason moves and preseason games do not inspire confidence in that area.

Atlanta lost its best defensive midfielder in the offseason after granting a transfer request from Carlos Carmona, who wanted to return to his native Chile to live with his family full-time. Just a few days before the transfer was finalized, Atlanta United technical director Carlos Bocanegra insisted it wasn’t happening. “You hear rumors all the time,” Bocanegra said, “but Carlos is here, he’s under contract with us, he’s our player. He’s not going anywhere.” Based on those quotes, it’s fair to assume that Atlanta wasn’t anticipating losing Carmona this offseason, and therefore didn’t have a plan to replace him. The club hasn’t signed a new defensive midfielder since Carmona’s departure.

Filling the Carmona-sized hole in his midfield is proving to be a challenge for head coach Gerardo Martino. Utility man Chris McCann has performed poorly in the role in preseason; top prospect Chris Goslin is just 17 and has no pro experience; fellow youngsters Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu and Oliver Shannon also have no pro experience; Kevin Kratz has played in more attacking roles his entire career; Jeff Larentowicz will be needed for minutes at central defense and, at age 34, lacks the speed to play in a two-man center of midfield.

Atlanta’s lack of a dynamic defensive midfielder capable of covering for a marauding partner might limit what Martino can do tactically. He might have to switch to a 4-3-3 that moves Almiron deeper and provides more defensive cover, or ask the central midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 to play a bit more safe and static than they did last season. But Atlanta is at its most dangerous when Almiron is pushed up high, close to Martinez, rather than when he’s asked to play deeper and help in the center of the pitch. So, in other words, Martino might be forced to go away from what made Atlanta a great team in 2017.

Improvement at center back isn’t going to make up for Carmona’s departure either. The club made no offseason moves in that department, and midseason depth acquisition Bobby Boswell retired. While Leandro González Pírez is a star player, Atlanta will again be counting on big contributions from Larentowicz and his fellow 34-year-old, Michael Parkhurst. In the extremely likely event that minutes are needed from a fourth player in that position, Martino will be counting on a massive improvement from 2017 first round draft pick Miles Robinson, who made just one appearance in his rookie season. Martino did upgrade at right back, signing Franco Escobar from his old club Newell’s Old Boys, but Escobar is much better in attacking and transition phases than he is while playing backed up towards his own box.

Despite all this, it’s worth noting that Atlanta is only in need of a small defensive improvement to vault into Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup contention. Its 40 goals allowed was fourth-best in a very attack-oriented MLS; Sporting Kansas City was the only team in the league to concede fewer than one goal per game last season. Atlanta also scores enough to make up for its only slightly above average defense — its plus-30 goal differential was second-best in the league, a full 17 goals better than the Western Conference winning Seattle Sounders.

Atlanta will not be better at defending in the traditional sense. It’s unlikely to see major improvements in defensive shape. It has lost ability to slow down dangerous counter attacks and win battles for the ball in midfield. But there’s more than one way to put together a good defense, and Atlanta might be able to bring down its goals conceded number through less obvious means — defending with the ball.

A team can’t score if it doesn’t have the ball, and Atlanta likes to keep the ball away from its opponents. Atlanta was second in MLS last season with 55.4 percent average possession, a number it can realistically improve. The only team to beat them in that category — the aforementioned league-best defense Sporting Kansas City — also subscribes to the possession-as-defense theory. European giants Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City all come in at over 60 percent.

It’s also very hard for a team to score if it doesn’t have anyone in dangerous positions when it recovers the ball. There is arguably no better defense than getting your opponents to play scared, and Atlanta did a great job of that at the end of last season. Martino’s team recorded 12 clean sheets last season, and impressively, with eight of them coming in its last 10 matches. Many teams come into a game against Atlanta with a plan to sit deep and hit them on the counter attack, then fail to execute the getting forward on the counter part.

MLS: Eastern Conference Knockout Round-Columbus Crew at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The answer to losing Carmona and failing to replace him might actually be to play an even more aggressive attacking tactic, not a more conservative one. This sounds like a crazy idea on its face, and most teams don’t try it for two reasons:

  1. They don’t have the attacking talent to execute it
  2. It leads to conceding some serious comedy goals

But it’s not crazy at all.

One is easy to address. Atlanta has one of the two best attacking units in MLS. There was a large, nine-goal dropoff in goals scored after Atlanta and Toronto in 2017. Two is inevitable, but dealing with it is really just a matter of management and mental strength.

If Martino trusts his team to not lose confidence from the type of goals it concedes, what are the drawbacks? Goals are goals, no matter how they’re scored. Atlanta was better at preventing goals than 18 other teams last season, even if it looks a lot worse than a lot of those teams on highlights. Just teach the defenders to reply to every media question about their poor defending with “scoreboard.” Goalkeeper Brad Guzan played for Aston Villa and was once his team’s best player in an 8-0 loss to Chelsea, so he’s emotionally conditioned to deal with this. It’s fine.

Yes, Atlanta United has average defensive players and bad defensive depth. It is unlikely to hold its opponents to under a goal per game, or finish with the best defense in the league. But the team does play defense, just not in a way we traditionally associate with defending. Atlanta put together a decent defense in its inaugural season by keeping the ball and making opponents play scared. It can improve at both of those things, and in turn, improve its defensive record too.