Atlanta United defensive improvement pivotal to playoff chase

Jason Getz

ATLANTA — Atlanta United midfielder Miguel Almirón meandered off the field after his team surrendered a tough 2-1 defeat to the New York Red Bulls. He glanced up and noticed the United faithful still present, still loud, still cheering despite the home loss to start the regular season. There they were, the fans, applauding the team as it walked back into the locker rooms of Bobby Dodd Stadium.

The Five Stripes have been together for five or six months. Yet, given the team’s form and the backing the club accumulated, one would think that the club existed for 20 or more years. It’s come a long way in such a short amount of time.

United is currently positioned fourth, only eight points from Eastern Conference leaders Chicago Fire, and plenty of attention is focused on the offense. Specifically, its attack orientation. It’s hard not to with United’s MLS-leading 39 goals while tied for third with 36 assists.

However, the talent spread among the backline shouldn’t go unnoticed — and its improvement feeds directly into the increased potential of achieving a playoff berth. And in the end, that’s what matters most.

“This league is a rollercoaster,” defender Greg Garza said. “The last place team can beat the first place team 4-0 and then back and forth. You never know, anybody can be a champion.”

Lucky for United, it hasn’t conceded four goals in a single game thus far. Despite difficult stints on the road, especially toward the beginning of the season, the defense shifted gears before heading into the Gold Cup break. Garza’s tenure with Mexican side Tijuana taught him a thing or two about this particular scenario moving forward.

“In Mexico, they always said that the first thing, and most important thing, is to make the playoffs,” Garza said. “Not what position you make in the table, because the playoffs are a completely different tournament.”

Out of the 22 teams in the league, United ranks 14th in goals allowed at 27. To put that into perspective, Sporting Kansas City holds down the top spot with 14 conceded goals.

The defense gave up some costly goals throughout the course of the season. Mistakes have ranged from individual to collective and to simply not being on the same page. Then United posted back-to-back shutouts against the Colorado Rapids and Columbus Crew. Captain and defender Michael Parkhurst said those results provided motivation.

“We expect the defense to be better in the second half of the season,” Parkhurst said. “There’s a lot of good offenses in this league, teams spend a lot of money on these offensive players. If you’re not on top of your game for 90 minutes you pay the price and we’ve paid it sometimes.”

Add in other key pieces such as Leandro González Pirez, the Argentine centre back, and Tyrone Mears, fresh off the Sounders victory lap. Or even Zach Lloyd’s experienced background with FC Dallas and Anton Walkes, the loaned youngster from English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur. All the more, Walkes began to create a name for himself in the starting lineup the last couple games.

“We definitely have had some moments where you forget you’re an expansion team,” Parkhurst said. “We’ve gone out there and done some really good performances and it’s those types of performances we want to emulate week in and week out. And we feel like if we are able to do that we’ll be able to be a playoff team. Not just a playoff team but a team in contention.”

It goes beyond the defenders themselves.

This league demands that of a two-way type of player. One who exemplifies that is Almirón.

A specific example is the second matchup against D.C. United, which resulted in a 2-1 loss. When Almirón lost the ball up top, the No. 10 playmaker tracked back to snatch the ball right out of the oppositions grasp in a matter of seconds. Players like Almirón and others that contribute to the offensive efforts are special for what they are. Let forward Josef Martinez, almost scorching his eyebrows off, celebrating goal after goal – it seems like – or the cheeky passing conducted by midfielders Yamil Asad or Julian Gressel do the talking.

“It’s important for me personally,” Almirón said. “But also for our team that players are able to attack and defend. I think in today’s football you have to be a complete player.”

United’s overall chemistry may still be a work in progress. But it all steers towards the same objective with an identical mentality. That is, to eventually hoist up the MLS Cup. After a road game streak that didn’t attract many wins, United found a rhythm that could produce a sound ending.

“The first step is making the playoffs,” Parkhurst said. “Until we are able to clinch a playoff spot, that is the main goal. We are sitting in a good spot right now, but we feel like we can move higher. Push higher and not have to push above the red line in a month or two, then we can worry about a playoff seed.”