Monday, March 11, 2019

Atlanta United FC 1-1 FC Cincinnati: Is It Still a Magic When You Can See the Strings?

If there's no body, it's just people standing around....
Full disclosure: I was fixing a flat on my bike during the first half of Atlanta United FC v. FC Cincinnati. For those wondering, no, it’s not a fixee.

Counter-point: if you pull up the MLS App’s summary for the eventual 1-1 draw and check the timeline, you will see very few dots on the thin grey line that corresponds with that time period. Don’t think I missed much, in other words (and, holy shit, do I need bifocals). Here is what I did see:

Two classic banks of four that looked solid, if not impenetrable. Heartening as it was to see that, my personal most heartening moment came with Mathieu Deplagne crossed the ball and Fanendo Adi nodded it home. A conspiracy of “rules” declared the goal offside (again, I would have allowed it*, this is how I roll), but that moment gives at least an answer to the question of whether Cincinnati can be competitive in 2019. Cincinnati did not create many chances overall (WARNING: the box score may cause depression; other side effects may include a burning sensation, mild psychosis, the runs and immediate death), but that move came during open play and, if you worry about the team surviving on set-pieces alone, seeing decent attacking play of any kind spells R-E-L-I-E-F.

Better still, Roland Lamah scored FC Cincy’s late, reasonably deserved equalizer in open play as well, and this is how one winds up with hot cockles (and helluva(n) assist by Kenny Saief!). Just to note it, Lamah looks better than I thought he would coming into the season. Also, the selected highlights on come just one clip shy of showing every single one of Cincinnati’s chances in this game. Marinate on that for a minute.

(* To wrap up the offside thing, I had an interesting debate with a guy on twitter about this and, as conceded there, calling offside on a strict black-and-white system simplifies things for all concerned; and yet I would adjust the rule to read that, if a player is mostly on-side (say, 80% or more), the goal should count. The way I see it, players already have to adjust to the way any given referee calls a game, so what’s one more wrinkle? But I digress.)

The balance of the box score makes a case for cheering the strong defensive showing a little louder than the few, fleeting attacks. Atlanta held a massive edge in possession and passed the ball nearly twice as many times as FC Cincy. No less significantly, Atlanta failed to convert all that activity into decent chances - give me 27 crosses and just 10 shots any day of the week – and that’s a further credit to the defense. I have this image of (the very expensive) Pity Martinez firing a shot from the left, well outside the widest reaches of those banks of four. It was a hell of a shot, but one can’t reasonably argue that Martinez wouldn't have preferred a better angle, and less clutter and distance. Given that FC Cincinnati built its roster with the primary goal of avoiding defeat, the strong stand by the defense seems impressive – especially with the discombulation of the loss to Seattle in the rear-view.

Doing so, however, requires pretending that Atlanta’s manifest struggles don't exist. When new head coach Frank de Boer took over, he re-wrote Atlanta’s playbook and, at this early point in the season, it’s fairly clear that the players haven’t so much as sorted out the blocking; to stick with the theater analogy (anyone?), it’s less that everyone hasn’t memorized his lines than they haven’t even sorted out who gets what role. When you consider specific pieces, things turn worse: neither Ezequiel Barco nor Martinez have looked worth the considerable investment Atlanta put into them and, another off-season addition/solution, Brek Shea, has played badly enough to make you wonder whether he’s forgotten some basics of the sport (i.e., if this were a passing drill, he’d be nailing one fucking cone after the other).

None of that takes away from Cincinnati getting its first-ever point in Major League Soccer, especially seeing as it came on the road, but you simply can’t honestly weigh this game without overhearing the very, very loud conversation about what the Hell is wrong with Atlanta. It’s one of the few clear data points that results across the entire league have yielded so far. Moreover, the result and general unfolding of the game run headlong into the specific point at issue with Atlanta – i.e., that they don’t have clear, developed ideas for moving the ball forward and toward goal. That’s theory playing out as reality to something like Exhibit A perfection.

It is always a good thing when a team takes a point from a game that everyone would have written them straight out of, maybe even including themselves, but both the quality of the opposition, as well as its state, makes up a major part of the overall story. Cincinnati fans should get a better idea of how well the defense is functioning with next weekend’s home opener against the Portland Timbers. After scoring three in the snow against the Colorado Rapids, Portland played the kind of super-fluid soccer that left LAFC snatching at shadows. It was fun to watch, as a Timbers fan (first).

Going the other way, Portland’s defense has been regurgitated shit. Which is to say, next Sunday should be interesting and for more than the green beer and terrible food. Looking forward to it (but am I?)

That’s all I’ve got for general comments. Time to fire off some bullet points.

- I liked the “2” in Cincy’s 4-2-3-1 – Leonardo Bertone and Victor Ulloa – even though I can’t say I saw a lot of them. Some say it’s a good thing when you don’t see defenders or defensive midfielders, but I always hang an asterisk after that thought. Also, I’d rather see my defensive midfielders kick ass.

- I have no goddamn idea what inspired Alan Koch to play Kekuta Manneh in a central role behind Adi. As I’ve watched Manneh down the years, nothing made me think that he or anyone else on the field would benefit from him in that position.

- Deplagne looks good, just globally. I see he and Lamah as the brightest spots on the team so far.

OK, that’s everything on this one. I have no goddamn idea how I’m going to watch next weekend’s game – and I mean that in the physical/practical sense of my attention span sustaining the double duty of watching two teams closely at once…looks like a good job for crystal meth…

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