Sunday provided everyone with example no. 143,395 of Why we shouldn’t draw any conclusions whatsoever from the first week — or two months, probably — of the MLS season.
[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]
From week to week, no other league in the world will see a team turn in such diametrically opposed performances…
[ MORE: MLS 2018 season previews ]
Tactical flexibility is a must-have in today’s MLS
Atlanta United were demolished and run off the field in their season-opening 4-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo last weekend, at which point the MLS masses were clearly a tad too quick to celebrate and dance on the Five Stripes’ grave.
Not only did the players respond during Sunday’s 3-1 thrashing of D.C. United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, so too did manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino during the week as he settled on a formational change and devised the perfect gameplan to cure precisely what ailed his high-powered attacking machine just eight short days ago. In that game, Atlanta were completely overrun in midfield with Darlington Nagbe and Chris McCann deployed as a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 — it didn’t work because there was simply too much space — vertically, but especially horizontally — for the pair to cover, and they were torched out wide.
To offset the obvious shortcomings of a Nagbe-McCann central midfield, Martino swapped the 4-2-3-1 for an aggressive, high-pressing 5-3-2 which featured Greg Garza and second-year Swiss Army knife utilitarian Julian Gressel and left and right wing backs, respectively. The third central defender helped Nagbe and his new midfield partner, Jeff Larentowicz, vertically while Garza and Gressel were godsends to either side. Not only were they asked to do far less defensively, thanks to G&G harassing Yamil Asad and Paul Arriola out wide, but Nagbe in particular was able to have an immense impact on Atlanta’s possession game — something which was null and void just a week ago.
Tata’s also working out the Nagbe “problem”
Speaking of Nagbe, it’s only a small exaggeration to suggest he could lead the league in assists, on secondary assists alone, this season. Consider the embarrassment of attacking talent playing ahead of him: Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco and Hector Villalba — who’d be the focal point for at least half the teams in MLS, but falls to third chair in his own midfield — playing behind Josef Martinez. There will be plenty of goals scored in the ATL, just like last season.
Take Atlanta’s first goal on Sunday as the most perfect example of how much easier the aforementioned stars have already begun to make Nagbe’s job. Sure, the first touch is great and bails out Villalba who’s in a tough trapped spot up against the sideline, but the ensuing through ball for Villalba is elementary stuff for a player of Nagbe’s skill:
The “problem” that Nagbe has presented his various coaches — both club and international — throughout his career is that he “should” be this type of player, or he “should” be that type of player. It’s pretty clear, after seven seasons and more than 200 appearances, he’s not a no. 10 and he’s not a winger. Let the man be the brilliant shuttler and link between defense/defensive midfield and a vibrant, downhill attacking quartet. (Caleb Porter stumbled onto this formula in 2015, and the Portland Timbers rode it all the way to MLS Cup.) Does it carry less weight and sound far less sexy? Sure, but to play the part as quickly and instinctually as Nagbe can do, might just be what separates Atlanta from being “fun” and “great.”
Plenty of reason to have hope for DCU
I said it before the season, and I’ll say it again now: by the time summer arrives, no team will have improved more from 2017 to 2018 than D.C. United. The roster was turned over last August (Arriola, Zoltan Stieber and Russell Canouse) and the overhaul continued this winter (Asad, Frederic Brilliant, Ulises Segura and Junior Moreno). For the first time in a long while, Ben Olsen has a genuinely talented MLS roster at his disposal.
For not-insignificant stretches of Sunday’s game — say, most of the second half — United were not quite in control of the run of play, but they were the more dangerous side with the score still 1-0. Darren Mattocks missed a couple decent chances (as he does) and the Black and Red were unable to capitalize and fatally conceded two goals in as many minutes.
Once Luciano Acosta reclaims his place in the starting lineup (he returned to the bench after being suspended for last week’s 1-1 draw with Orlando City SC), he should tie together United’s sturdy back half and an attacking unit made up of (largely) slightly above replacement-level MLS retreads.