Analysis / Union

Match analysis: Atlanta United 0–0 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Today’s match analysis will be straightforward, because it doesn’t take rocket science to understand what happened on Saturday afternoon in Atlanta. The match turned on a few obvious factors:

  • Atlanta played much better than the last time these teams met, and with an intensity appropriate for a team fighting for its life.
  • The turf field surface gave the Union—particularly its vaunted attacking trio—fits, which prevented Philly from taking advantage of the small number of good opportunities the team generated.
  • With Alejandro Bedoya injured and Jack McGlynn replacing him, the team never looked comfortable in their shape, failing to exert the usual level of midfield control.
  • Despite all of that, the Union earned a point because they have the best defense—and in particular the best goalkeeper—in MLS.

Atlanta deserves credit

When last these teams met, Atlanta was all but dead in the water. They put up a good fight, enough that fans of the team could spin a positive story out of the match, but Philly were much better on the day, and it seemed to nail Atlanta’s coffin shut. Since then, however, other results and Atlanta’s improved performances have combined to resuscitate their playoff charge.

On Saturday, Atlanta came out hot, and played like a team that both knew it needed a performance and also believed they could get one against the best team in MLS. Unsurprisingly, the possession meter was tilted in Atlanta’s direction, but more telling was the proactive way Atlanta played, forcing the Union to make more than twice as many tackles as Atlanta did, while intercepting the ball more than twice as often as the Union did. Atlanta went for it, and played hard, fast, and confident. That they failed to score is one part bad luck, one part poor finishing, and like 30 parts Andre Blake. While the dropped points may have actually (for real this time) ended their playoff chase, it was a great performance.

The turf played a role

The Union have never won a game played at Mercedes Benz Arena in Atlanta (in league play—commenters below remembered the 3–0 CCL win). Given the state of Atlanta United the last few years, that’s a little surprising, but the fact remains that it is one of the fiercer home fields to play against. There’s always a big, loud crowd, and of course the turf is an issue. While playing in front of noisy fans shouldn’t affect the Union, the surface clearly did.

Part of what has made Dániel Gazdag, Julián Carranza, and Mikael Uhre so effective these last two months is their ability to link with one another using one-touch passing and movement. On Saturday, one could be forgiven for thinking the trio had never played together. Uhre barely had a touch in the first half, while Gazdag and Carranza couldn’t hold the ball to save their lives. The Union did generate situations that they have otherwise been able to leverage into scoring opportunities, whether on the break or through possession, but on Saturday every single one broke down due to a loose touch or the wrong weight of pass. It wasn’t only a problem for the attackers. Neither Union fullback, usually so important to what the Union do offensively, were able to contribute, either.

Jim Curtin has made clear how much disdain he has for turf fields, saying they aren’t worth playing on. Nevertheless, they exist and the Union will need to figure out a way to manage them. Luckily, they won’t have to play on one again in 2022. Sadly, the Union’s next league game, versus Charlotte, is again on turf. Hopefully, lessons have been learned.

The Union missed Bedoya

It’s well understood now that Bedoya carries value for the Union that goes well beyond what shows up in a box score. Saturday’s game was perhaps the best ever example of that. Bedoya’s influence might have calmed the team enough to exert better midfield control. Further, McGlynn playing on the right as a left-footer does odd things to the shape of the diamond, which unbalances things. For his part, McGlynn did an admirable job of defending, putting in the most pressures of any Union player, but he was doing more chasing than possessing on the day. He did manage to create three shot-creating actions, according to fbref.com, but considering the Union did not have a shot on target, they were of dubious value.

Give Andre Blake the MVP trophy

Blake was, quite simply, extraordinary. He had five saves on the day, and all five were jaw-dropping in their own way. Atlanta striker Dom Dwyer was dumbfounded that he failed to score, and he was not alone in that feeling. They were the sort of saves that leave opponents fuming, as if something they deserved was taken away from them. When, in reality, the fact is that when a team has a truly great goalkeeper, no is thing guaranteed. Blake was assisted by Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott, both of whom put in goal-denying blocks, as well as José Martínez, who marshaled the base of midfield as well as he ever has, but it was Blake’s show.

Tony Meola is the only keeper to win MLS MVP. He did so in 2000, on the way to winning the championship with the Kansas City Wizards (they didn’t become Sporting Kansas City until 2011). He had 16 clean sheets that year, a league record. With two games remaining, Blake has 14. If he and the Union match Meola’s accomplishments, an MVP for Blake would be more than deserving.

Takeaways

The most disappointing aspect of the draw is that it gave LAFC back control over the Supporters’ Shield. If they win out, they will take it, because they have more wins than the Union. It is far from guaranteed that LA can win out, however, so hope is not lost.

More important from the Union’s perspective is to turn around in the next game and prove that this offensive doldrum was a one-off. The Union has done an excellent job of not allowing setbacks to multiply. If they can manage it again and finish the season strong, they will be well set up for making a championship run.

14 Comments

  1. We did win there just in CCL, and we are playing on turf at Charlotte. Aside from that can’t disagree

  2. We play Charlotte on turf next. Blech. Sadly Charlotte used to have grass in that stadium. TUCK FURF!!!
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    I don’t think they will give us the same fits that Atlanta did though. I think we get on the board a coupe time next game…

  3. The Union did win at Mercedes Benz Stadium 0-3 in CCL last year.
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    Doesn’t Charlotte play on turf? If so, the Union do play on turf again.
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    One fact I heard yesterday is that LAFC hasn’t beaten a current playoff team since July 17. Their remaining games are against Portland and Nashville, both teams in playoff position.

    • Ok, not great fact-checking on my part. I blame Chris Gibbons about the turf, though, I thought Charlotte played on turf, but he said no. The internet could have answered that for me.

  4. Thinking about the match, and why no Union score- it had to be all about timing and the way the ball rolls on turf vs grass. The top three just were out of synch because of that. Curtin said they opted not to practice on turf, so they didn’t have a chance to adjust. It was a master class in defending though. Look out Charlotte, Union went to school in Atlanta..

  5. As silverrey said, Charlotte used to be grass and it looks as if the stuff was installed in 2021 because the soccer team was going to playing on it – additional maintenance expenses would be my guess.

    Turf types for MLS teams:

    field turf – charlotte

    field turf revolution – atlanta & portland

    FieldTurf Revolution 360 – seattle

    FieldTurf CORE – new england

    I have no idea what makes them different, but it’s likely that Charlotte’s shite turf is slightly different from Atlanta’s.

  6. If you watch old tapes of English games they are mud pits. But now they are not at least at the top two levels.
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    And not a turf field among them.

  7. In Canada you expect turf, because they can only grow grass two weeks out of the year. There is zero excuse for turf in the south. Especially in the humid East.
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    Hate to say this but you can expect a bad game from Brujo next time out. He always has an off game back from international play.
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    Let LAFC (pronounced LAUGH-SA) have the shield. Shield winner is likely to bomb out of the playoffs before the final. We want the cup.

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