July 21: Orlando 0 – 1 Atlanta (a return)

Back after a brief hiatus. Thanks for your patience. This one (which I watched from my couch on pins and needles) was fascinating. It felt like a smash and grab in the immediate aftermath, but we’ll investigate to what extent that sentiment is accurate. Let’s just dive right in.


OCSC outshot Atlanta 13 to 8 and many will tell you they should have won.  Most* expected goals models show something that many would interpret as Atlanta lucky as all hell to leave the state of Florida with any points, let alone all three (here’s one):

11tegen11 race xg
@11tegen11 shows Atlanta producing very few low quality shots in this one. With Orlando creating more, including the 1 very, very big header chance off the set piece (saved by Guzan).

And for good measure, FiveThirtyEight also had the shots-based xG at 1.2 – 0.4 in favor of Orlando. At time of posting ASA’s numbers aren’t up yet, but they’re normally similar.

Here are the shots:


So, was Atlanta actually lucky and Orlando unlucky? Not so fast. Atlanta is perhaps fortunate that some of the Orlando shots weren’t put on frame, and Atlanta won’t count on a dream strike from Tito every match, but Orlando can always shoot better, and they can close down a striker cutting inside with the ball on his dominant foot. If we’re going to give cosmic credit to teams for shots they would normally expect to put on frame but didn’t (or for close headers that are scored more often than Guzan let them in this game), we should look into giving some credit to attacking moves that are normally converted into high quality shots, but that may not have been (namely those of Atlanta). One such way to accomplish that is to calculate an expected goals value from non-shot events data, and FiveThirtyEight happily includes such an estimate alongside its shots-based expected goals model (check the last row).

538 exG

Taking into consideration some of the more dangerous moments Atlanta created but that did not result in shots shows a more even match, and for my money, that’s the true story of the game (though I do not fully understand everything that goes into their model). The total number of touches in the penalty box and surrounding areas seems similar as well (these coming from whoscored.com).

ATL Touches in the Box

Atlanta may have been lucky to take all 3 points and the teams largely played evenly to a draw, but there’s nothing wrong with taking 3 against a #rival because of a beautiful goal. And no, I do NOT think Orlando have a claim to have outplayed Atlanta on this day. I’ll do my best to make the case for why.

Flow of the Game: Atlanta pressed high. Orlando didn’t.

First off, aside from the first few moments after the whistle and a handful of half-hearted other attempts, Orlando rarely pressed Atlanta’s back line in this game, and they were happy to cede the lion’s share of possession to the away side. Atlanta attempted 63% of all passes attempted in the first half, and 49% in the second, for a combined 57% of passes attempted in the match (aligns with the official possession figure of 55%). See below for a pretty common initial look from Orlando when Atlanta were starting play.

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Basically, as we’ve seen several times this year, Atlanta played like the home side, and Orlando looked to absorb and counter, which — look, that’s totally a valid game plan, especially against the Five Stripes as I’ve mentioned before — but when you’re playing at home with this sort of reactive approach, it seems more likely that a weird moment can slide you from a drawing position into a losing one rather than from a winning position into a drawing one (the more likely ‘oops’ that a proactive team like Atlanta should look out for over the second half of the season). To boot, here are the patented Tiotal Football Pressure & Tidiness Stats for the game:


What we see here is 1) Orlando generally choosing not to (or failing to) disrupt Atlanta’s buildup play, allowing the away side to start possession calmly and 2) Atlanta not allowing Orlando the same privilege. Remember ATL are averaging 190+ own-half passes and 33 giveaways per game, for something like 7 own-half passes per giveaway. And their opponents are averaging 130, 30, and 4.3 against ATL. In a recent post over at DirtySouthSoccer I had posited that while these averages create a somewhat advantageous equilibrium for the Five Stripes, perhaps there was a slightly higher level they could move to in terms of “tidiness”:

“The question is, is it the equilibrium Tata Martino (and Darren Eales) aim for (?), or is there a possible equilibrium where Atlanta is shaving off a handful of giveaways per game and still maintaining their pressing effectiveness and ball control? Could we see the team average 25 or fewer giveaways per game down the stretch while still turning their opponents over 30+ and forcing the long balls?” (DirtySouthSoccer)

Well, that worked out quite nicely! Here Atlanta are a mere few days after I wrote that piece, putting up a much tidier overall performance while still creating havoc in their opponent’s half (partly due to Orlando not trying much to disrupt). The second half is a bit mediocre from both teams – partly the humidity I expect. Atlanta’s press slowed slightly in the second, though still higher than Orlando’s. But why didn’t the successful Atlanta high press turn into shots, chances, expected goals, goals you might ask? I’m tempted to blame chance in the same way analytics folk often blame chance for conversion rates that might seem too low or too high.

Pressing Moments

To my eye, there were several successful pressing moments that just barely did not come off in terms of creating shots, but on another day they might’ve. To paint a picture, here are just a few I noticed:

  • In the 13th minute, Atlanta press generally pretty well chasing the ball around Orlando’s half, and they create an unsuccessful touch or two, but it’s just barely recovered by Orlando — I might call it luck. In many games the ball bounces the other way and Atlanta are off to the races.

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  • In the 14th minute, Asad pins Orlando back deep only for the player to narrowly escape him to find a centre back who boots it long, but it is intercepted by LGP well inside Orlando’s half. A 1-2-3 in quick succession nearly finds LGP through on goal for a 1v1 chance. Gressel’s throughball is narrowly caught out. Orlando were almost punished for their loose possession — we were closer than many realize to the game changing drastically this early. But no Atlanta shot was registered.

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  • In the 40th minute, Atlanta forces a long ball from Bendik, and then immediately presses the wide player causing a terrible back pass and a massive chance for Almiron through on goal, but again no shot is registered because of a desperate retreating slide tackle from OCSC.

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These were just a few I grabbed screens of, but generally speaking Atlanta created a ton of danger for Orlando City in this game from the press that simply wasn’t resolved into a shot in the box score, and therefore had no associated expected goal value, and on and on. Be cautious if you suggest Atlanta were overly fortunate. There was some luck. There normally is. But there was also Atlanta executing their game plan.

Buildup Moments

Given the lack of a high press from Orlando (or the occasional attempt at it), this match was also a nice view into the kinds of buildup patterns Atlanta aim for against what was often two banks of four. I think this is interesting because we are often wondering whether Atlanta can create from buildup play (instead of just from turnovers). And I’ve been obsessed with whether or not Atlanta are improving the tidiness required to play this way. Here are a few key moments that I found illustrative, and buried in here are some very good near chances – more of those kinds of things that don’t show up in the shots/xG totals:

  • In the 2nd minute, Atlanta passes through a fairly high Orlando City position to create a very nice attacking look. This may have been one of the moments that persuaded Orlando not to press high as much.

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  • In the 15th minute, Atlanta plays the ball forward through their own half largely uncontested, and play really begins with the classic “Asad-tuck-in-Garza-overlap-Almiron-shows-for-the-ball-triangle” (TM). This is Atlanta’s Plan A it seems to me. The buildup culminates with 3 Atlanta attackers narrow moving into the box with Almiron the ball behind them, and Garza and Walkes in plenty of space wide. Then they successfully work the ball into the danger area, but fail to find a shot. Great buildup play on the road in a hostile environment.

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  • In the 23rd minute, there’s this nice little flick (link to MLS clip) coming from back to front as LGP finds Almiron in space centrally and he plays Asad through nicely.
  • In the 36th minute, we see Plan A again: calm and conservative buildup from the back. Asad tucked in, Garz/Asad/Almiron/Tito combination down the left. Narrowly called offside though I don’t see it. Another one of those very good plays/ very dangerous chancs that doesn’t show up anywhere in the numbers.

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  • In the 63rd minute, you see another very high quality concept from Atlanta in buildup (similar to the last one). Under basically no pressure from Orlando’s forwards, the Atlanta de facto back 3 is able to rotate the ball around with ease and then Parkhurst can pick out Almiron dropping between the lines. Again, if I’m offered this position, I play it. It didn’t come off but a very nice buildup.

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  • In the 78th minute, we see Orlando nominally pressing high but with little effectiveness. Atlanta plays the extreme short buildup concept, and Garza makes a safe choice to play direct under a little bit of pressure (denies a giveaway opportunity for Orlando). The ball is headed back to the midway line by Orlando and Atlanta wins the second ball, and look at that final position: 4v2 in the attacking third. Again, another very dangerous situation. Just missing the final ball/move from the away side.

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On balance, if you told me I was playing away in a hostile environment and gave me the choice between these types of moments and a couple admittedly good header opportunities off of set pieces, I think I’m taking these — before we even get to Tito’s Level 99 Thunderbolt. Jesus what a goal. I don’t have much to add to that. I think Rob at DirtySouth has some good points about Tito potentially lining up on the left for shots such as this one, and for other reasons.

And that’s basically what I wanted to get across. Shots-based expected goals did not tell the whole story of this one. And oddly, this seems to happen often with this team. It may have felt like a heist in the middle of the night with Guzan’s very nice saves, and Tito’s fireball, and Will Johnson’s miss, but on balance, Atlanta accomplished what they wanted to in the press and in buildup, and occasionally you’ll have games where it’s hard to convert that into end product. It’s the nature of the sport.

Oh, two quick comments on team shape.

First, I thought it was cool to see Jeff Larentowicz in a more pronounced back 3 for most of the game, which is the correct “by-the-book” move against a 2 forward setup from Orlando.

Second, late in the game a fascinating thing happened. Jason Longshore was the first person I saw who mentioned it (on Monday’s SoccerDownHere show). Martino had Atlanta line up in a sort of false 9 4-3-3 type look, with Almiron leading the line, flanked by two more traditional forward type players, Villalba on the left and Vazquez on the right. There were a couple nice moments in this – one was THE GOAL. The other involved Almiron picking the ball up in the half space, dealing it to Walkes wide right and collecting it again for a shot just outside the box. I think this is something to keep an eye on. The only other time I remember seeing something like this was against Toronto where Almiron played centrally flanked by Villalba on the right and Asad on the left. I might like to see this look with Villalba on the left, Martinez on the right, Almiron central, and Asad sitting behind him as the furthest forward in a central midfield triangle.


I’ve described these in further detail over at DirtySouth, but basically because MLS’ schedule is less balanced than a traditional European league, we shouldn’t look at the table “straight” the way we might look at the Premier League table. Once you make some adjustments for games played, and home/away splits, you get a better picture of how teams are actually doing. Atlanta are doing well. See below:

Pace 1: Win away, Draw Away Measuring StickPACE1

PACE 2: Historical MLS Home/Away Average Points Per Game Measuring StickPACE2


High Press and Possession – Midseason Review

I put together something over at DirtySouthSoccer summarizing and reviewing all of the pressure/tidiness type stats you might see on this blog all the time. I sort of like how ti turned out. Please check it out here:


Player Tidiness

A poor excuse for a catch-up post (7-17-17)

Thought I would drop in a few pressure/possession tables for the most recent few games, which I have not covered on the blog at all during a period of absence.

First, the Five Stripes hosted Colorado, winning 1-0 on 1.9-0.8 of shot-based expected goals (ASA).

COL pressure table

Next, the return leg in Columbus, a 2-0 victory compared to 1.2-1.3 xG (ASA).


And lastly, a weird one against a 10-man San Jose, in which Atlanta won 4-2 on 2.6-1.3 expected goals based on the quality and number of shots.


Overall these were some decently unique games in terms of pressure, tidiness, and chance quality. Colorado didn’t even attempt to press Atlanta, and it shows in the above average tidiness figures for the home side. Colorado couldn’t hold onto the ball in their own half, putting up an abysmal pass per giveaway number while generally limiting the damage from lost possessions in their own half. Against Columbus, Atlanta actually sat back slightly (partly cuz game state) and hit long over the top with some success. We’ll look back on this one as a very rare gem, I’d imagine, for a number of reasons even if they couldn’t limit the giveaways against a pressing Crew FC. And then against San Jose, the first half press numbers are interesting as San Jose gave as much as they got. But the second half went as one would expect with the Earthquakes down a man. Atlanta barely spent time in its own half, and simply did not turn the ball over back there. Atlanta’s pressure on San Jose in the second was impressive.

Atlanta’s averaging 7 own-half passes per giveaway compared to their opponents’ 4.3. That 4.3 number feels about right for a high pressing side. We’ll see if that 7 budges going forward.

Atlanta continue to “run hot” against the expected goals models. I put up a poll asking whether we thought Atlanta’s results would continue over the second half of the season at their current GD per game pace (+0.5) or decline somewhat towards their expected goal difference per game of (-0.3). It was unanimous for the former, which I found interesting. But everyone seems right at the moment…

There will likely be something from me on DirtySouthSoccer.com this week. Be on the lookout.

June 17: Atlanta 3 – 1 Columbus

The first thing I noticed when the whistle blew at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday was that Columbus did not press high against Atlanta’s centre backs when they had the ball. They were more restrained, generally blocked passing lanes into midfield and waited to engage the press until the ball crossed the halfway line. This shows up in Atlanta’s “tidiness” stats (also known as the CLB pressing stats).

ATL TidinessWhile you may remember 2 or 3 cringe-worthy passes from the back line, with Columbus hanging back a bit, most of these passes were intercepted in the attacking half with the Crew daring Parkhurst and Pirez to pass their way across the line of engagement, and so they don’t show up in the “own-half” stats. What you can see is Atlanta passing in their own half at a level of comfort rarely seen this season, occasionally turning the ball over  via unsuccessful touches and dispossessions but at a very low rate (every 12+ passes). Atlanta also had around 60% possession in the first half. So in summary, CLB sat back to some extent, happy for Atlanta to pass the ball around in their own half.

Columbus is a very technically  capable team and came into this match playing the highest percentage of short passes of any team in MLS (11%). In the first half against Atlanta they were slightly more direct (16% long) partly due to sitting back some, but were still caught out in their own half at a very high rate, and not coincidentally the same rate of disruption that Atlanta usually causes its opponents (a giveaway for every 4-5 own-half passes).CLB Tidiness This sort of disruption in Atlanta’s attacking half created the first goal with Asad tackling and assisting Villalba in one very nice move followed by a piggy-back ride to the corner flag. It was mirrored at the end of the game with Kratz and Martinez.

If you look back at the charts, you can also see a lot changed in the second half. Columbus came out ready to press Atlanta further forward, and Atlanta in turn played more directly, perhaps out of necessity, or perhaps tactically, as is suggested here. It’s difficult for me to be able to tell which side is driving this, and which side is reacting, but it’s definitely there. I should also point out that perhaps Columbus played more directly in the first half as a reaction to Atlanta’s pressing and not just purely as part of a game plan. One thing that is unmistakable is the difference in Kann’s passing from the first to second half. My guess is that this aspect of the shift in passing is purposeful.

Check out the defensive action charts below to see Atlanta pressing high in both halves and Columbus drawing the line of engagement at the center circle in the first, and venturing further forward slightly in the second. Also check out those left flanks under siege (more on this later).

Here’s a new chart. The entire season to date of own-half passes per giveaway for Atlanta (blue line) and Atlanta’s opponents (red line). Remember higher numbers are good as you’re passing the ball more times before giving it away in your own half:

PPG over time ATL

Atlanta presses persistently and with purpose (see how stable the red line is) as their opponents’ “tidiness” rarely if ever veers too far away from the average 4-5 passes per giveaway range. Atlanta’s tidiness on the other hand fluctuates more significantly from match to match. Since these statistics are time consuming for someone like me to capture, I mostly just have them for Atlanta matches, so I’m not sure if this sort of thing rings true for most teams (i.e. that a team’s tidiness is dictated by it’s opponent’s press and not the other way around), or if this is something that fits Atlanta uniquely. It’s interestingly nonetheless. This chart suggests a team can manage its total giveaways against Atlanta by refusing to pass in its own half (route one style) fairly easily, but it has less control over the rate at which it gives the ball away when passing in its own half. The calculus comes down to how well does your possession suppress the quantity of your opponent’s shots and does this compensate enough for the quality of chance you will ultimately give up on occasion, trying to pass through a press.

Chances and stuff

Take a click through the usual data bits from @11tegen11. I think the expected goals stuff is pretty fair this week with both teams creating huge chances in the first half, and each side converting one such chance. Kann was massive for Atlanta and kept the game winnable going into halftime as Columbus found a couple really pretty through balls in behind Atlanta’s back line that set up very good shooting opportunities. The second half was more a game of attacking moves that ended just short of shots being taken or shots being taken from outside the box (perhaps the ultimate example of this is Kratz splitting the centre backs to find Martinez running at the keeper — I couldn’t have been the only one thinking we were about to see another keeper rounded).

Here are the attacking “chances” broken down by half (chalkboards from MLSSoccer boxscores).

Interesting that the first half was basically both teams attacking their opponent’s left flank. I don’t have a lot more to say in terms of the chances. This game was interesting from a style of play and tactical perspective, and then for the pure brilliance that a fatigued Almiron showed on his quick strike counter goal. And then as a fan, I was amazed as always by Yamil Asad — his pressing, his movement into space off the ball, his chance creation, and his general effort level. He’s leading the league in assists (proper assists not hockey assists) with 8. DP level stuff. I’ll stop here with the objective-ish analysis because there are so many games coming up, and these posts aren’t exactly evergreen anyhow 🙂

Biased Reaction

Here’s a quick comment as a fan. This was a massive win for Atlanta. First and foremost, at the moment the team is competing with Columbus for a playoff spot. Any eastern conference home game is crucial, but against these guys it’s sweeter, and Columbus is a good team despite their recent run of form. It was clear they were technically proficient, and generally well balanced, significantly talented in Meram, Higuain, and Kamara and the tactics seemed fine. The Crew could’ve been up 2-0 or 3-1 at half, and if that’s the case, we generally know how those games go for Atlanta. So it’s certainly important to reflect on Atlanta’s good fortune — how what could’ve been a demoralizing home loss to cap a 3 game losing streak is instead a statement win against a “rival,”– but the great thing about soccer is as soon as you’re done reflecting on that, you get to think about the individual acts of brilliance from Kann, Almiron, Asad, and Larentowicz, oh and Josef Martinez, and no one can take those 3 points away. This tension between underlying performance and results, which is rare in most sports, can be brutal at times and sublime at others.


And here are the current PACE tables heading into Wednesday night. The first a measure of each team’s performance against the win at home, draw away rule. The second, a measure of each team’s performance against the average MLS team’s home and away splits multiplied times each team’s composition of home and away matches played to date. They both suggest the same thing, that Atlanta is squarely in playoff contention, not chasing like the 7th place that the official table will lie to you about.


Also, you guys should really listen to the Beta Band more. Smh.


June 10: Chicago 2 – 0 Atlanta

Dig the Long Ball

Coming into this match, Chicago were playing 15% of their passes long, which put them in the top third of the league in terms of short passing (Crew & Sounders ‘lead’ at 12%). Against Atlanta, the Fire played 25% of their passes long at home, and often successfully over the top of Atlanta’s isolated centre back(s). For reference, the highest long pass average in the league is Vancouver at 20% who coincidentally also upped the long balls above their season average against Atlanta (and won at home). Before that, New York City stubbornly did not increase their long ball usage, and were wiped out at Bobby Dodd Stadium. But before that, NYCFC played longer in Yankee Stadium (home) against Atlanta and succeeded. Between those two matches, Portland played significantly more long balls than their season average and managed a point (with a potentially missed offside call) at home.

See what I’m getting at? Like I said last week, with Atlanta coming to town, teams have a choice to make around how they progress the ball into their opponent’s half, and the correct choice seems clear. Playing short means Atlanta will create good chances off turnovers. Playing long means you minimize that problem plus you may even create something nice yourself.

I don’t want to be too presumptuous with the causality. The guy who watches one team and is bad with data is the king of small sample sizes. The above matches could be a coincidence. Or, higher percentages of long balls might be a symptom of game state, that is to say teams that are leading hit the ball long more and more as the match progresses (although there are some pretty good teams at the top of the short passes table). I’d love to see a broader analysis of which teams drive other teams to deviate away from their general trends. Is it a complement to Atlanta that each team they face is shifting it’s style of play significantly? Or is it evidence of a glaring weakness that’s easily exploited with just a few days of game film preparation? Anyhow, I’d love to see a statistical approach to examining which teams drive change, and which ones their opponents historically may just play straight based on style preferences and goals.

I should say also, as we segue back into the match, that Chicago were more clever and complex than simply playing route one against Atlanta. They mixed in their fair share of nice build-up, pressing, long countering balls, and just general balance in a way that seems to have optimized the result once the game state was on their side. Here’s are @11tegen11‘s pass maps for the match. Chicago’s is interesting.

Chicago with lots of conservative passing and a few repeated long paths towards goal. For Atlanta, this looks like the usual very aggressive positioning, but you’d love to see some links to Tito up top. For what it’s worth, there were countless times where he made great runs to split the centre backs but was rarely rewarded with a throughball.

Own-half Possession & Pressing

Atlanta came out pressing high (surprise, surprise). Chicago picked their spots to press — waited for vulnerable moments, like if an Atlanta defender turned back towards his own goal with the ball. Chicago were successful in turning Atlanta over at times in their own half at the beginning of the game, but dropped off some late as they played with the lead.PressureGame

Atlanta, for their part created right around the exact number of turnovers they’ve forced of their opponents on average this season, both on a pass per giveaway basis (4+), and also in total (32). Here’s the full table (w/ 11tegen11 xG subbed in for the latest match instead of ASA’s numbers):PressureTable

In one such play, Garza slid in and won the ball back and laid off to Tito who shot wide, one of the better chances of the match for United. Chicago’s chances on the other hand came less from pressure in Atlanta’s half, and more from opportunistically exploiting the aggressive Atlanta positioning. With both fullbacks high, and at times a bombing Michael Parkhurst flying up the middle, Chicago played balls over the top several times, mostly catching Atlanta out.

Goal Focus 😦

For the goal that changed the game, in a comedic turn of events LGP and Parkhurst are passing each other like strangers on a cross walk when we join live, LGP having gone on his tour of the attacking half, and Parkhurst beginning his ill-fated voyage with the ball.

CHI GOAL AWhile this was  fun for a second (like the last time Parkhurst did this), it was a poor choice. You can see the general structure of the team completely broken with Parkhurst dribbling into trouble even with 5 or so Atlanta players open for a pass at this point. In the mean time, Pirez, now making his way back to position, has no centre back partner but is tasked with containing Chicago’s 2 most dangerous attackers.CHI GOAL BOnce Parkhurst is dispossessed, it’s kind of over.CHI GOAL D


I should mention that while Chicago did have the better of the chances in the first half, they were by no means dominant. @11tegen11 shows Chicago with a modest lead at the half, almost all of Chicago’s total (something like 0.8?) coming from the chance they scored. Tito’s 1v1 chance off the odd Gressel sideline clearance/lob makes up the bulk of Atlanta’s total at half (which looks like something slightly higher than 0.5 goals). That number in and of itself should tell you something about how harsh you should be towards Tito for the miss. On average that chance is converted a little less than half of the time (a fantastic chance, as good as you’ll find really, but not one that’s converted 100% of the time – it’s just the nature of the sport). Anyhow, here are the chance maps for the two teams at the half:

To the eye, it’s an intriguing half of football. Atlanta controlled the game and had the volume of chances — many of which don’t show up as shots in the stats because they were narrowly snuffed out. There are plenty of crosses from the right with Gressel/Mears, and more lively action from the left with Garza/Asad. There’s a great ball played in from Kratz off a long set piece before the half that doesn’t connect, and a Pirez header from the spot. What I’m getting at is that while the goal changed the game, Atlanta’s attack didn’t look inept to me, by any means, despite Almiron and Martinez not playing. Chicago had many such almost shot type chances as well, narrowly cleared by defenders.

In the second half, Chicago managed the game state very well. They are a good team I’m afraid to say. In general, they never lost their balance between attack and defense:

Lots of crosses for Atlanta in the second as Chicago appropriately managed the lead and extended the lead off of a corner kick originating from a great piece of build up play where Kann made an outstanding save. It’s hard to break a team down who’s leading, smart,  and dangerous on the counter. Atlanta’s learning that the hard way this year, but not really applying it to situations when they have the lead — they’d rather maintain the aggression and take risks.

The continued question of where the goals will come from if not through transition

I’ll continue this discussion from last week. There’s a growing concern that if in any given game, Atlanta aren’t converting transition chances, or aren’t getting said chances because a team is bunkering, or a team is “managing the game well” with a lead, then Atlanta won’t be able to generate goals through possession and buildup. And in response, my basic theory is that very few teams can count on calm buildup type goals that aren’t transitions or set pieces (another story altogether with ATL) — certainly no team in MLS. I have a thought experiment. Think of the last five or so soccer matches you’ve watched. For me it’s CHI-ATL (transition goals + set pieces), MEX-USA (transition goals), USA-T&T (transition goals), VAN-ATL (set pieces, 1 ATL buildup goal), ATL-NYC (1 transition goal, 2 ATL buildup goals). So in this span, 3 out of the 5 matches had no “normal possession goals” and the two that did featured Atlanta. My hypothesis remains that no team can count on possession/build-up-created goals as it’s “bread and butter.” The other ways to score are much more common. Possession/buildup (if executed correctly) is first and foremost (at least in a league like MLS) a tool to control the game and minimize the amount of time your opponent has the ball. And it comes with risks. It’s just the futile act of watching your team chase a game down 2 goals that makes you feel like they’re lacking in ideas or unable to break teams down. It happens to the best of us, but from what I’ve seen, Atlanta has the skill/talent/tactics to create the odd possession-based goal from scratch, and “occasionally” is a good enough rate for this in my book. Set pieces are maybe a problem? I’m not sure. I defended the short corners last week, and I think there were some shots created off corners this week, but pretty soon I’ll be out of defenses for the zero set piece goals created. Oh, and while we’re at it, it occurs to me that Atlanta hardly ever draws fouls just outside the box, where some of the more dangerous set pieces are taken. For a team with dynamic dribbles and quick speedsters, where are the set piece opportunities? Something to keep an eye on. One would imagine Almiron and Asad would be drawing fouls just outside the box often.

That thing Mears does

That all being said, if we are to take a deep dive into some possession/buildup stuff…I know I’m not the only one bothered when the ball is switched over to Tyrone Mears, only for everything to halt and as the defense shifts back into place before the ball is played back to Parkhurst. My game notes from the last several matches are filled with stuff like “ball is switched to Mears, who plays back to Parkhurst.” I stared at a couple of these instances from this week’s game. My immediate reaction is always that Mears is too slow, or timid, or too right-footed, and he’s ruining these possession for us. But as I watch these sequences over, I’m just not sure what’s going on. It’s clear that Garza/Asad have something nice going on over on the other flank that Mears hasn’t found with Villalba or Gressel, and so my inittal thought was that Mears has trouble finding those square passes into the advanced midfielders that he’s overlapping (say a Gressel, or an Almiron or Kratz). But here are some screenshots from one such sequence on Saturday, and maybe you can help me figure out who’s to blame (I mean it, it’s not clear to me really):Mears15aComments after all the pics.Mears15bMears15cMears15e

It looks to me like maybe at the beginning he’s too hesitant to keep driving forward (there’s still some space in front of him, and everyone is moving forward), but he’s also looking for someone to pop into some space and no one does — they just keep running. Further, he has to be pretty cautious about trying to take on a defender or take more space, given how many red shirts are in nice spots in the center circle area should he turn it over (with Garza also wide and high on the left). Then he stops the ball (the trademark Mears move it feels like), and every single player makes the exact same come back to the ball type move (or they’re stationary), except Kratz who does a clever little but perhaps overly nuanced overlap? So it’s unclear if Mears misses his chance to play someone through, or if no one is able to find actual space. Ideally you want someone running in behind and someone dropping in front of the centre backs, and someone else showing for theball in midfield etc etc.

My solution would be for when Almiron returns, for him to make a more concerted effort to not drop back into midfield to start play, and instead to remain high tucked between the lines, and then importantly, to commit to coming across field when the ball is switched to Mears. I would be OK with Mears playing a ball slightly forward and into Almiron’s feet with a higher risk for a turnover, if perhaps there was more cover deeper to handle a counter — maybe Garza drops back with purpose when the ball is switched? It’s all quite difficult to understand — that’s the game I suppose.

Let me know your thoughts.

June 3: Vancouver 3 – 1 Atlanta

Atlanta United just keep scoring early goals. And then not holding onto the resulting leads. Shades of the DC United game. Shades of Montreal. Hell, shades of NYRB on opening night. Apologies for a sloppier post this time around. Had a hard time fitting in the hours to put in a proper effort.

Pressing & Tradeoffs

As is their custom, Atlanta United came out pressing high against the back line of Vancouver. Like all of ATL’s opponents, Vancouver had a choice to make as to whether to try to play the ball through the press along the ground bypassing the away side to create transition opportunites, or to lump it long, mitigating the risk of giveaways in their own half. If NYC boldly chose the former at BDS last weekend, then Vancouver wisely chose the latter in their own house. This shows up in the own-half pressing and tidiness numbers. PressureTable1Atlanta is successful in creating what little disruption they can (3.7 passes own half passes per giveaway for the Whitecaps), but mostly the home side minimizes this threat by skipping this zone and playing long. Coming into this game, the Whitecaps played a higher share of longballs than any other MLS team (20% of total pass attempts), but for this game they upped it even more ultimately playing nearly 1 in 4 passes long. As I rewatch the game, it’s clear that Atlanta is pressing high, with a similar intensity as against NYC, but it just doesn’t produce the same excellent results because of the tactical tradeoff Vancouver makes. It’s unclear if Vancouver learned from NYC’s stubbornness or were always going to place this way based on their style. The results are clear though. Below are the first half defensive action maps for each team, and it’s striking what little disruption in the attacking half Atlanta are able to create, both relative to what we’re used to seeing, and also relative to their opponents in this match:

Similarly, the unsuccessful passes in each team’s own half contrast sharply. Vancouver misses passes in their own half only a few times and generally in less worrisome spots (focus on the yellow highlights i dropped in since the red pass lines can be messy if the Keeper had some bad ones):

Vancouver didn’t punish Atlanta for these turnovers often which was fortunate. Aside from the corner goals, against the run of play, there’s only one other shot inside the box. Atlanta doesn’t produce much either during this first half. (edited to add chance graphics)

Goal Focus

Below, we’ll break down the very nice Garza goal, but first I want to pontificate for a moment about experiencing a game when your team is losing. So once Atlanta went down 2-1 or 3-1, as a fan I get increasingly impatient normally with my team’s inability to break down a defense that is happily clogging the midfield and making things difficult. It’s easy to jump to conclusions like “this team isn’t good. Why can’t they break down this set defense?” and I think it’s just worth reiterating that one of the best things you can do in a soccer match is be in the lead. With the game state in your favor, it’s not hard to make it really difficult for your opponent. Sure, Atlanta was unable to break down Vancouver, but most teams would struggle equally. While I don’t have the stats or the expertise to back this up, my general gut feeling about soccer (and especially MLS) is that you either score in transition with your opponent scrambling, or you score off of either random bounces or acts of pure brilliance. You can also score by carefully, cleverly, and patiently breaking your opponent’s defense down, but it’s just not common. And because it’s not common, resist the urge to freak out when your team is chasing an uneven game state and having a hard to breaking a defense down. In my head I have this idea that you should expect your team to score from “proper buildup” maybe one out of every two or three games. The rest of the goals come from those other “rougher” categories. So with that said, Atlanta did score from a nice buildup this week.

This one starts with the ball at Atlanta’s back line, which is oddly reshuffled for a moment with LGP on the ball in the center and Jeff Larentowicz playing left center back in an odd role reversal. For some reason Vancouver has 5 players (Montero, Bolanos, Chani, Techera, and Robinson) all in high pressing positions but without actually pressuring LGP on the ball. So he’s able to look u scan the field and find Garza on the left in space. With 5 players bypassed, the rightback now rushes forward to step to the ball and Garza eliminates this player in one touch to find Asad now occupying the space vacated by the right back. Asad is now running in the vacated space at the right sided centre back and the left sided one occupying Tito. Laba finally retreats back to force Asad to get rid of the ball and he finds Gressel who one time early crosses to a Garza run at the back post for the goal. In a game where Atlanta turned the ball over many times, this was a really cool moment where they played right through their opponent starting deep in their own half and ending with a nice goal.

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If Atlanta are able to score a goal like this every game, or even every other game, given the opportunities off of turnovers they’ll surely encounter, then they should be rolling, assuming they find a way to stop giving up early leads. Josh at DirtySouthSoccer broke down the goals against Atlanta, so I will happily pass on that.

On the question of how to break down a team and score in non transition opportunities, I still like the idea of manufacturing transition opportunities by playing diagonals to the corners and then either pouncing on the defenders, or on the subsequent throw-ins.

A word on corner kicks

There’s been some hand-ringing this week about corner kicks, how Atlanta haven’t scored from any this season and how Vancouver corner kicked the crap out of the team this weekend (all three of the home side’s goals came directly or indirectly off corners). I will not defend the team’s corner kick defense. The giving up of goals against the run of play after you’ve drawn first blood and flipped the game state in your favor is a terrible sin, and so far a real problem for United, but I want to push back on the hate towards Atlanta’s attacking set pieces & corners.

Much has been written about corner kicks and their goal scoring proficiency relative to their impressive dramatic effect. While not uncommon occurrences, set pieces, and particularly corners are those rare moments of pause in football before an attacking move, contrasting sharply against a backdrop of near constant fluidity. Because of this, supporters understandably place a disproportionate amount of focus (and perhaps memory) on them despite the fairly low quality of chance on the average corner. I tend to think that as Americans, we are very, very used to these pauses that saturate the other traditional American sports: 30+ seconds between plays in NFL, timeouts in basketball, ages between pitches in baseball. And as a result, we tend to be even more prone to putting too much emphasis on them. The numbers tell us that scoring on corner kicks is rare. There’s this analysis of the top European leagues that suggests 3% of corners result in goals, and there’s this piece specific to MLS that shows 2.5% as the conversion rate, something like 1 in 40. Statsbomb also quotes 2.5% as the average rate with “elite execution capable of generating something higher, between 6-8%. With this in mind, I should point out that Atlanta have taken 52 corner kicks and not scored on any of them. So, if you want to be upset about it, be upset that they haven’t scored 1, or maybe 2 as the percentages suggest. I am willing to be a little more patient especially given what we know about Atlanta and its corner kicks. For one, we know they have a defined philosophy and strategy around corner kicks: often playing them short and restarting possession and/or throwing in clever designed plays to create better chances than 3% ones. This fits with the general theme of Atlanta’s attack this year: fewer shots, better shots. In fact, as I mentioned on twitter last week, Atlanta’s shot volumes from open play paint a different picture from their overall shot totals, suppressed largely I suspect by this tactical choice to play short corners.

As I’ve noted a couple times on this blog, watching the Atlanta corner kicks closely, you can see actual intelligent design in place rather than just a haphazard playing of the ball into the well-guarded danger area. That’s really all I ask for. And for what it’s worth, I saw that some more this week. In the 2nd minute, ATL called a “play-action” (if you’ll indulge me) off of a misdirection short corner setup to put Mears in a position to play a more dangerous ball than otherwise would’ve been possible. Almiron passes between the short corner defenders to find an unmarked Mears in the box. It just didn’t come off. Vancouver smartly stepped up to disrupt Mears’ secondary cross, but it’s clear the team is working on ways to make these set pieces meaningful events rather than low probability noise.corner1

Also, for reference here are the updated PACE tables I posted over at DirtySouthSoccer this week. First, against a pace set by the win at home draw away baseline. And second, each team’s actual points above or below the average historical MLS team’s performance based on the same number of home and away games. Atlanta a top 4 or 5 team in the East based on these metrics.




May 28: Atlanta 3 – 1 New York City

Most fun at Bobby Dodd so far. A critical home win against a top team. A clear signal that the recent stubborn commitment to building from the back in the face of pressure instead of maximizing points on the road was the correct call. An incredible display of high pressure from the entire team in the first half on a hot day paid dividends. We’re going to need to talk about finishing again.

High Pressure

Both sides set out to press high and create turnovers close to the opposition’s goal. For the opening 10-15 minutes, NYCFC was slightly more effective at this and caused some anxious moments in front of the supporters section. Almiron’s goal in the 15th minute changed the game permanently. For the next half hour up until halftime, Atlanta squeezed the life out of the away side pressing their back line and forcing a ton of misplayed passes — many of which were somewhat harmlessly played out over the touch line, but others were more dangerous. Regardless, the pressure kept NYC from creating really anything after Almiron’s first. And just as importantly, the press created Atlanta’s third goal when Gressel won the ball back off of Callens and eliminated the keeper for Almiron to one-time Gressel’s cut back into an empty net. Here’s how each team did in terms of pressure and tidiness (stuff we’ve discussed often in recent weeks) broken down by the opening 15 minutes of even game state, the following half hour of Atlanta’s ruthless pressure, and the second half where NYCFC was officially chasing the game:PressureTableThe most notable thing in the above table is the half hour after Atlanta scored, where the ball stays in NYC’s half and the visitors give the ball away over and over again. Atlanta’s pressure here not only created the third goal of the game, but also pinned Viera’s team in their own half — who after consciously playing long with 17% of their passes to bypass Atlanta’s press at Yankee Stadium were surprisingly stubborn and insisted on playing through the pressure in this one — it ruined them. They only played 14% of their passes long (mirroring their season averages which are the 4th lowest in the league) suggesting they did not alter their style in the face of a tenacious Atlanta press.

See the difference in real estate in the successful pass chalkboards below. Atlanta completed almost as many passes in NYC’s half as in their own.

The pigeons, despite completing passes at a consistently high rate, were dispossessed or failed dribbles often in their own half and struggled to move the ball into Atlanta’s half. This portion of the match before half time has to be the crowning achievement of Martino’s time at Atlanta to date – and he had a great angle from which to take it all in up in one of the boxes, having been suspended for the match. Below are the defensive actions for each team during this part of the match:

It’s also worth noting that this period of relentless high pressure seemed (to my eye at least) to take a lot out of United. It was a hot day and the constant sprinting from Asad, Villalba, Gressel, and Carmona (who frequently charged ahead to lead the press from midfield) was impressive. It’s not surprising that Atlanta backed off a little in the 2nd half, not only because of the game state of 3-0, but also because of the energy spent in the first half (I speculate). It is a joy to watch Asad bend his run to shade the pass to the flanks when he presses the right sided centre back.


That’s awfully clinical from Atlanta in the first half. All 3 shots are goals and therefore all 3 key passes are assists. In fairness, two of these chances are essentially 1v1 with the keeper, and the other is an empty net chance. The expected goals figure at halftime of [squints at 11tegen11’s xG race graphic] 0.8(?) is closer to zero than it is to three. But this is why expected goals is best used as a middle to long term predictor of future goals and not as as good at evaluating an individual shot. As we break down the three goals in the next section, you can see that while historical conversion percentages from these types of shots may be closer to the 30-50% range (i.e. very, very good chances), it was not entirely surprising that they all found the back of the net. And there’s also good reason to believe these 3 chances are qualitatively better than the average historical MLS chance in similar situations (i.e. the model). Both of Almiron’s goals were coded as “big chances” by Opta, which presumably increases their xG value, but Tito’s was not, nor was Asad’s assist to him coded as a throughball, which would’ve also increased the expected value. More on Atlanta’s finishing at the very bottom of this post.

In the second half, New York City added about a half a goal worth of chances but were able to convert a decent chance into a goal after Mears’ giveaway off an Atlanta corner turned into a counter which ended with Mears caught between two NYC runs and unable to clear the ball that was crossed into Harrison at the back post. NYC’s other efforts inside the box were mostly blocked, a testament to the commitment of Larentowicz, Pirez, and Parkhurst.

ATLUTD Goal Focus (some slideshows)

One of the cool things about this match was that Atlanta strangled the game away through its high pressure of NYC’s back line, but only the last of Atlanta’s 3 goals was a direct product of this pressure. This is a great turn of events as it should give we as fans (but more importantly the team) confidence that Atlanta can generate high quality chances through various avenues – not just through turnovers.

To me, the first goal was strangely reminiscent of the Maxi Moralez goal in the Yankee Stadium fixture or the Parkhurst own goal in the DCU game and here’s why. While this goal was refreshingly not a quick turnover-based transition opportunity, it would also be a stretch to suggest it was created through careful buildup play. Kann hits the ball long (like Johnson in the Bronx and Hamid at Dodd), and the ball is won by Mears, falling to Villalba in the center of the field, his first touch caroms around for a moment before falling back to him at which point there is a clear path to a high quality chance. He expertly plays Gressel through and then makes a run for a near post cut back (for which he is open), but Gressel who has somehow drawn the remaining two defenders to him on the right, instead cuts the ball back to a wide open Almiron (and also Asad who is making a good horizontal run for a cross). Given the fortunate opening bounce off a contested header at midfield, Villalba does the right thing, Gressel does the right thing, Almiron and Asad make the right trailing runs, and Almiron calmly finishes, but is this a “well built up play” ? Probably not. Even still, this is the kind of chance that you get when you have great attacking players. In soccer the ball will bounce all over the place, and the events can be 50% pure chaos, but Atlanta has spent it’s money (and/or scouted good talent) in the attacking third, and so these chances are good and fair ones for Atlanta to score.

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The second goal is the pick of the litter. This one has real buildup / playing through the press. It features calm possession in Atlanta’s own half, followed by good movement off the ball by Asad to find space and offer up an outlet (and good vision by Larentowicz to find him). It also includes a killer “through-ish” ball (though not coded as such by Opta) to an exquisite run made by Villalba, and finally a sharp, sharp finish. This is the goal Atlanta hopes to create regularly going forward, especially as Martinez returns to full health. This is the goal you have to know you can come up with if you find yourself in must-win situations against teams there to make life difficult for you. Tito’s finish reminds me of Villa’s against ATL from a few weeks ago, but to my eye it is prettier.

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The third goal is a classic high pressing, “counterpress-is-the-best-playmaker” type goal that Atlanta has proven it can score over and over again this year, and yet they must keep scoring these goals as they are the bread and butter of the great Martino machine. If that second goal from Tito is the one you hope you can pull off when facing a difficult-to-break-down defense, than this is the goal you know you have to score early and often in a default scenario for the rest of the season. This is the formula. Would Gressel have been called for the foul if this were an away game, probably. Does it take away from the fact that it was well earned and also quite sustainable going forward, no. Game on. I love the contrast in the way Gressel hits this pass compared to the first goal (which was a lighter touch so that whoever got on the end of it could easily control and finish). On this pass, he sees that the real work is done by eliminating the keeper and so the vital thing is just to get the ball to Almiron before the window closes. He hits hit hard and all Almiron has to do is redirect really.

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The part where I eat some past words.

I was somewhat critical of the tactical choices Atlanta employed in the first matchup with NYCFC, I made the argument that points were precious and that given the smaller pitch at Yankee Stadium, Atlanta should’ve abandoned some of its principles in the match in order to maximize the chances of getting points on the road and in such a strange venue. I also acknowledged that I could be persuaded in time that it was worth it to the overall development of the team’s style and identify to commit to playing a certain way even it in the face of very difficult challenges. After three good results in a row, in which a commitment to possession and build up play through short passes had a say in each outcome (albeit to varying degrees), I think I can say (mostly persuaded by the crucial 6 points in 2 home games) that the trade-off was worth it. Even taking the two NYC matchups in isolation, if at the end of the season Atlanta is battling with other teams for playoff berths and not NYC, then each team taking the 3 points at home is beneficial to both, and perhaps, Atlanta doesn’t take home 3 points this past weekend without this consistent commitment even in the face of failure in New York. This logic is somewhat weakened by the players continuing to give soundbites about how against New York they “went away from their game” and that was their downfall. I still don’t agree with that, but it is what it is. What seems conclusive though is that Atlanta are now in a place where they can feel confident that if the transition/turnover game isn’t working, they’ve got some other tricks in the bag — dropping Larentowicz between the CBs and building play that way. Against NYCFC, Atlanta did not enjoy the possession advantage they had against Houston and Portland, and the team did in fact play the ball long with a higher frequency than usual (20%). Nonetheless, they were much more confident taking NYCFC’s high press head-on and playing around them, I suspect because of the work they’ve put in on the training ground and in the games focused on playing out of the back.


You might notice I mention this in almost every post. But there’s this thing happening with Atlanta that we need to understand, but I’m struggling to understand it. Atlanta are leading the league in goals scored but third to last in the MLS in shots. They are converting their shots into goals at exceedingly high rates. Further, if you posit as I have in the past that Atlanta are taking low volumes of exceedingly high quality shots, than you might be troubled to know that AmericanSoccerAnalysis has them at 4th lowest in the league in expected goals per game (which should measure the combined quantity AND quality of a team’s shots). Drilling down into the quality of Atlanta’s shots, they’re sitting in the lower half of the table (13th) at 0.107 per shot. If you compare the league leading 26 goals to the expected goals model, and start comparing it to other teams and prior seasons, things look wild:Historical G - xG

Those bars represent every team’s goals scored minus expected goals for the season to date as well as each season from 2011 to 2016. And that bar on the far left (which albeit is only 12 games) is an historic rate of finishing chances for 2017’s Atlanta United. And there are real problems we need to grapple with as a result because generally speaking these types of statistics tend to regress the more shots are taken (as seasons progress). So the question we have is A) Are Atlanta’s finishing numbers unsustainable, suggesting that the remaining portion of the season will be difficult if/when those shot numbers don’t improve, or B) Do Atlanta United’s players possess the rare and mythic trait of elite finishing that the analytics community generally would suggest is more hype than substance, or C) Is Atlanta United doing something that the public expected goals models simply cannot pick up on and thus the quality of their shots is much higher than the models are crediting them with? The third option there is intriguing, but we shouldn’t rush to it. After all, wouldn’t there be other examples in MLS history of teams that created similar chance that break the models? At any rate, this is an intriguing question that at the end of the season, we’ll either look back on and say “yea, saw that coming, shucks” (like West Ham in 2015/2016 EPL?) or that will cause us to reconsider how we think about finishing and expected goals (I think?). Some more shooting charts for Atlanta for anyone who hasn’t already thrown their computers and/or smartphones out a window:

Update: Thanks to the Vancouver Whitecaps gaffe of trying to sell tickets to the upcoming game by showing all of Atlanta’s goals in 1 video clip, it was easy to put together the following table to address some of the comments to this post and to better illuminate Atlanta’s overperformance vs public expected goals models (which many have pointed out can only indirectly measure how many defenders are between the shooter and the goal:

  • 27 goals minus 1 own goal = 26 shot by Atlanta
  • 19 goals with zero outfield defenders between the shooter and the goal.
  • 6 goals on empty nets (keeper was eliminated either through dribbling or cutback)
  • 3 goals with only 1 outfield defender between shooter and goal
  • 3 goals with more than 1 defender betweens hooter and goal (Almiron @MIN, Tito vs CHI, Carmona @NYC)
  • 2 goals from outside the box (Almiron @MIN, Gressel @POR)
  • I count 10 that should probably be categorized as through balls (all 1v1)



Adjusted MLS East Table Stuff

Last week on another site, I recommended we start looking at the MLS table a bit differently. First and foremost, we should balance the table to reflect an even number of games played, and secondly we should do something to account for the dramatic difference in home and away performance in MLS. For those following along, here’s how the table looks after last night’s matches.13pop

I’ll be improving how this table works after some good feedback I got in some of the comments to the original post. But at the very least, I think this is a good reference point to go along with the official MLS table and the MLS PPG tables.