The Atlanta United hype train didn't take very long to derail, and as much as Saturday's 4-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo is just one match, it managed to shine a spotlight on the remaining flaws in the second-year team in a brutal run of 45 minutes.
The second-year MLS club came into 2018 with high expectations after a headline-grabbing winter spent adding some big attacking weapons, but the Dynamo exposed some clear areas for concern in Atlanta's vulnerable defense and the club's lack of depth.
Led by the ever-dangerous Alberth Elis, Houston repeatedly forced Atlanta United into mistakes and it brought about a match to forget for defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. Captain Michael Parkhurst didn't start the opener and is still working his way back to full strength after a preseason injury, and his absence was glaring during a first half where the Five Stripes simply looked lost defensively.
"Houston has really fast and destabilizing people up front," Atlanta United coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino said after the match. "We struggled in stopping Elis when he had the space; and we committed a lot of individual errors where we basically invited our opponent to finish the game.”
Gonzalez Pirez endured a particularly rough day. Without Parkhurst on the field to help direct him, Gonzalez Pirez saw his slow reactions punished by Houston's speed, with Elis abusing him on the opening goal. He was far from alone in being to blame for Houston's four-goal barrage, but if Gonzalez Pirez came into the season overconfident after finishing last season in top form, Houston promptly stuck a pin in that ego.
It wasn't just the back four though. Atlanta's midfield didn't provide enough support for the defense, which probably didn't come as a complete surprise. The defensive midfield role was the big cause for concern heading into the season after Carlos Carmona's departure. Jeff Larentowicz was expected to try and fill the void, while Darlington Nagbe's ability to keep possession was also supposed to help take pressure off the defense.
Neither worked out. Nagbe's debut was lackluster. He didn't keep the ball and his defensive contributions were inadequate, which is likely what led to him being replaced in the 61st minute. Chris McCann was active, if ineffective in defensive midfield, while Larentowicz looked slow playing at center back.
"I think that what cost us was the defensive part, which is something you have to care about in soccer," Martino said. "It looks like we struggled with defending the ball and we struggled on the 1-v-1 defensively. Offensively, we probably created as many scoring situations as Houston did, but our defense didn’t work as well – and when I talk about our defense, I mean the whole team."
By the time Parkhurst came in to replace an injured Gonzalez Pirez in the 41st minute, the damage was already done to the tune of four unanswered goals and even more scoring chances for the Dynamo. Atlanta United was left with an ugly loss that exposed some flaws that weren't exactly secrets. As much attention as the acquisitions of Ezequiel Barco and Nagbe received in the offseason, it wasn't as if the glaring needs for a defensive midfield and some depth at center back weren't also obvious to see as the new season approached.
How did Atlanta wind up with such a clear roster flaw? It's down to Carmona's departure, which Atlanta United didn't account for in its winter plans.
The Chilean midfielder was outstanding for Atlanta last season, and his hard work in midfield was underrated and invaluable. Once he forced a move to Colo Colo, Atlanta was left with a clear void to address. It was believed Larentowicz and Nagbe could help pick up the slack in central midfield, but Larentowicz was deployed at the back, where he struggled, and Nagbe failed to match the work rate of former Atlanta United midfielder Yamil Asad, let alone Carmona's defensive work.
It isn't time to go into panic mode in Atlanta just yet. Parkhurst looked sharp once he entered the match, and his return to the starting lineup should help Gonzalez Pirez a lot — assuming his injury doesn't force him to miss playing time. Larentowicz should help the central midfield, and Nagbe should bounce back to deliver more of the quality expected of him.
All that being said, the rest of the league will have seen what Houston was able to do, and will certainly look to attack the same flaws the Dynamo's feasted on. Atlanta United's technical staff also saw clear evidence that waiting until the summer to address the team's glaring roster needs isn't really an option. Not when the team is just one injury away from being so glaringly exposed.