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Talking Tactics: What Atlanta’s transition play can tell us about the league, and what it means for RSL

Struggling with their style of play, Real Salt Lake has work to do.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The beautiful game is getting uglier. There is a clear trend that has emerged in that we are seeing more goals than in previous seasons, a result of organizations focusing more on quick counter-attacks to get the upper hand.

Clubs like Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers, the two highest scoring squads thus far, win through direct passing and speed to the goal - the two most basic components of transition play. This allows those clubs to concede possession at times, but ultimately leave their opposition in the dust when it comes to scoring efficacy.

The 2014 MLS season was the final breakthrough of tiki-taka, possession oriented soccer to open the opponent’s defensive formation, and has been replaced in its entirety with counter attacking (transition) soccer as a pure tactic.

Transition play as a tactic

In the pure tactical sense, transition soccer can be a quite reliable, yet risky strategy.

In addition to having pace in the attack, a counter-attacking squad must be built on a solid defensive foundation. The back-line serves as an effective organizational apparatus with a straightforward design: the defense needs to be organized while sitting back, patient to absorb pressure, and focused on starting an attacking break.

Look at Atlanta, who have done exactly that three times to win at Minnesota, hosting Chicago, and at Salt Lake. Just take a look at Atlanta showcasing just how devastating transition soccer can be against Real Salt Lake.

Just before this clip, Brandon Vazquez losses possession in RSL’s box when he pushes the ball just beyond the touchline. Being in the final minute, RSL’s Matt Van Oekel waves his teammates down the pitch and knocks the ball over the center circle. Atlanta defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is the first to react, sending the ball back across the center line. Atlanta then uses the basic components of transition soccer, direct passing and speed to put the final nail in the coffin of this match.

When Atlanta regains possession of the ball, they look to see where the Claret-and-Cobalt are weak, playing forward quickly. This is best demonstrated above by Julian Gressel. With no one marking him, the freshman player looks to exploit the space vacated by the RSL defenders.

Then it is simply about the quickest and most direct route to goal. Vazquez takes one touch of the ball, gets around Rimando, and tucks the ball into the net during his debut.

It takes a mere 11 seconds from possession being regained to the Atlanta goal. Its buildup is simple in execution and exhibits a counter-attack done to perfection.

What you often see from Atlanta are two-to-three quick pass moves that span essentially the entire field, moving the ball directly from defense to the attack in a matter of seconds. As quick as this sequence occurs, the opponents do not have the time to collect themselves.

While this strategy is often associated with responding to offensively dominate opponents, such as RSL was when chasing the game, Atlanta has shown that it is also effective when coming back from a goal down.

RSL attempted to play with a heavy counter-attacking influence over the course of the last year, but it never paid dividends like it has for Atlanta. In fact, the Claret-and Cobalt suffered from all of the cons of transition soccer and none of the pros.

For example, Real would rely on counter-attacks when they were trailing, allowing the opposition to bunker, and resulted in RSL leading the league in one goal deficit defeats during the 2016 season. In fact, since switching formations to enable more transition plays, the Claret-and-Cobalt has been negative impacted twice: susceptible to conceding 18 percent more goals and unable to convert 37 percent of goals they previous scored.

The philosophy behind playing at home vs away

Transition soccer is often associated with the away team or the “on-paper” underdog because it is obvious that a team would want to protect what it has got first and foremost. By contrast, a home side’s need to attack and press high up the pitch is fueled by expectant fans. As such, counter-attacking soccer is more often forced on the away side, happening somewhat subconsciously rather than being a deliberate tactic.

Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s Atlanta United has been the best in the league at this by far. Under Tata, Atlanta has won three out of seven total matches and two out of five away matches to date during their inaugural campaign. Not always attempting to go all out and match their opponents, Atlanta is well disciplined to keep their shape and break when the opportunity presents itself – which seems to be working to perfection at the moment.

So far this season, Atlanta has had a far greater percentage of away wins than any of the previous twelve expansion sides to enter the league this century. Atlanta has won 800 percent more away matches than the average expansion side but have had 29 percent fewer home wins.

It is fascinating to see an expansion side with more away wins than home wins, but the season is long and it will be interesting to see if Atlanta can maintain this trajectory.

The increase in away wins is not just down to transition soccer, but it has been a highlight of Atlanta’s game plan and produced some brilliant performances on the road.

Fate has not been as kind to RSL. Absent of almost any inspiring performance since 2014, Real bottomed out last season when they finished with the third worst away record (4-11-2) in the league. To put in in perspective, Atlanta has already won 50 percent as many away games that it took all last season for RSL to muster in just seven matches.

Counter-attacking systems are built on belief

Atlanta and Portland may have very different ambitions at the end of October, but when looking at their transition play they are remarkably similar. Both have attempted a similar number of counter-attacks and scored a similar number of transition goals.

There are statistics for ground covered, but none for the type of player one has to be to play transition soccer. Instead of resulting from a single statistic, this type of system requires all squad members to be on-board: if two or three players do not fulfill their duties in this system it will not work.

Atlanta’s strategy, as alluded to earlier, is very much reliant on its precise execution. In that sense, Tata’s side operates within a small margin of error during a match, which has been reflected in their overall record so far this season.

On several occasions this season Atlanta’s conservative tactics failed against overly aggressive sides that have found ways around their defense. Aggressive pressing sides like the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC exposed Atlanta’s sitting defense resulting in multiple goal concessions.

In what has been a successful first season for Atlanta United, transition play has be central in Tata’s plans. Tata’s side might not always set out to necessarily win matches against all opponents (a draw is respectable here and there), but their belief in their system has seen them score the second most goals during the first two months of the 2017 season — surprising most people at this point.

Atlanta United confidence has translated to the pitch as they are the most clinical team in the league — 25 percent of their opportunities result in a goal.

Under Jeff Cassar, the Claret-and-Cobalt really never had the same belief that Atlanta has in transition soccer. While Atlanta plays as one cohesive unit in both attack and defense, RSL was never able to accomplish this. Whether it was the wingers not getting back to defend or the defense sitting to deep to provide any sort of passing outlet, Real was never able to emulate a strong counter attacking team.

Why transition play won’t work for every club

As stated before, counter-attacking soccer is not always pretty.

Atlanta and Portland are in the middle of the league ranking for number of long-balls attempted, averaging 15 percent of their total passes, and within the margin of error off the trend-line. RSL is on the fringes with 19 percent of all attempted passes being long-balls and having the second lowest pass completion rate in the league, only behind D.C. United.

Does it matter? Well, yeah. Low pass completion rates leads to high turnover rates. Turnover rates are, consequently, related to individual and team errors. So, while conceding possession is not necessary equivalent to an individual error, it can lead to quick counters, which is a form of capitalizing on opponents’ errors of conceding possession.

In fact, RSL leads the league in number of times dispossessed (29.4 per match). While 13.5 are from opposition tackles, the majority (15.9) come from turnovers. These are usually soft turnovers such as a misplaced pass. Predictably, most of these turnovers are the result of long-balls, for which Real leads the league averaging 19 percent of their total passes.

Even sporting the ideal possession ratio of 50 percent, their overall quality has been lacking.

A transition based team has to be precise, demonstrating quality in both shot conversion and pass accuracy. While Atlanta have been converting 25 percent of their opportunities and having 78 percent of their passes reach their intended target, the Claret-and-Cobalt have been struggling to do either boasting a 9 percent and 71 percent average, respectfully.

Each match and opponent is different, and the statistics show that a club’s style of play alters. Area of maximum possession and player movement boil down to team compositions, bringing about those stark differences in the end product.

Also, there are a lot of other characteristics that are pivotal in plotting against a given style of play. Team chemistry, average line positioning, formatted response to general stimuli, and decision making are just some of the factor influence the decision.


Even if there was a good one-size fits all tactical strategy, it probability would not remain effective for long – the reason why tactical versatility for any team is essential.

Many coaches in Major League Soccer are enjoying a tremendous success with immediate ball recovery, but this does not mean that all squads are inherently programmed to preform it. What suits Tata’s Atlanta does not necessarily fit with RSL’s make-up and visa-versa.

Real has demonstrated an utter lack of ability in countering transition play over the past three years, ever since Kyle Beckerman was paired with a midfield partner.

The modern day mid-field is a very complex area of discussion. While there are numerous big name teams which have transitioned back to traditional no-nonsense central midfields, some team still depend on the modern phenomenon of a holding midfielder.

RSL has moved away from employing a single holding mid, but it might be time to rethink that strategy. Beckerman is not getting any younger and his ability to cover large swaths of ground in a blink of an eye is all but gone. In fact, he could be as much to blame as Nick Rimando for the third Atlanta goal with his nonchalant jog back to cover space.

This does not in fact mean that Beckerman, or RSL for that matter, all of a sudden suck, it just means that players are continually played out of position. The captain is great at breaking up play and screening the back-line, but still he is relied upon to clog up the midfield.

Atlanta, and to a larger extent Portland, have found a way to play that suits their roster, so shouldn’t Real also?

The Claret-and-Cobalt’s core is still build on possession based soccer, but was forced into a transition heavy system. It is not working for the organization, still they refuse to change.

Since taking over, Mike Petke has made some subtitle changes that reinvigorated the club enough to win three matches in a row. However, the honeymoon has ended and RSL must return to the drawing-board.

Will wholesale change come soon enough to salvage this season, or will Petke’s sweeping changes have to wait until next year?