Going on the road to face both reigning conference champions on back-to-back weekends is no easy task, especially when it involves going cross-country and international travel. Atlanta United came away with two tough draws - two tough points. Thankfully, the manner in which one earns a point on the road doesn’t matter. The last two matches have been a test of how Atlanta United not only handles the travel unique to MLS, but also how the expansion team matches up with top-tier MLS competition. Against Toronto FC, it didn’t look pretty, but like any great team, they did what they needed to do to come away with a draw.
Tito Villalba looked good in two moments playing centrally against TFC. He was able to use his speed to get behind the defense and create similar opportunities Josef Martinez would’ve presumably made. He scored the first goal to help set the tone, and scored right after halftime to keep Atlanta United in a position to come away with points. During a time Atlanta is missing a key attacking player, Villalba did what he needed to do. Atlanta United now knows they can count on Villalba to fill the Martinez void in the event of injury in the future. It’s not ideal, but with Tata Martino opting to use Kenwyne Jones as a late sub off the bench instead of as a starter, Villalba will be expected to use his speed to get behind defenders rather than trying to create on the wing.
Atlanta United is stout on the defensive end. Coming into Atlanta’s inaugural season, many presumed the defensive backline would be the biggest area of concern. After five matches, Atlanta United has only conceded five goals, good for a share of third fewest goals against in the Eastern Conference. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez has been stellar in the first five matches and against TFC, Pirez led the team in total tackles and clearances, according to WhoScored.com. He’s clearly a top centerback in MLS not only because of his defensive abilities, but also due to his ability to distribute out of the back. Long, pin-point passes has been his calling card. He’s also not bad with the ball at his feet.
Against TFC, he was a force defensively and added a great assist on the Villalba’s second goal. In case you need a refresher, here is Pirez dispossessing Jozy Altidore and assisting on the second goal:
The great aspect of Atlanta’s backline as a whole is that goals have come on individual mistakes rather than tactical or talent-related issues. Atlanta United should have no fear of any team’s attacking prowess considering how well they contained both Seattle and Toronto, for the most part. The backline will continue to get better as the season progresses. Seeing them handle Seattle and Toronto the way they did so early in the season is a great sign of things to come.
As good as he was in two specific moments against TFC, Villalba typically won’t see the same opportunities while positioned on the wing. The moments against TFC that saw Villalba with a more wing-like opportunity, he did not fair well. In three 1-v-1 opportunities, Villalba failed to successfully take on defenders or create a meaningful chance.
Against Chris Mavinga:
Against Eriq Zavaleta:
Against Michael Bradley:
His play on the wing has been adequate at best, but considering he’s one of Atlanta United’s designated players, the standard will naturally be higher. While Martinez is out, Villalba looks like a great stop-gap at central forward. Making the same impact on the wing once Martinez is back from injury will be Villalba’s test. The question he’ll need to answer: is he more than just a one-trick pony? He does a great job of getting into a dangerous position from the wing, but once he’s force to make a decision, he struggles.
Against TFC, Julian Gressel struggled mightily. He made 37 passes, completing only 56.8 percent of those passes, according to WhoScored.com. Visually, Gressel seemingly missed on most of his passes going forward. Toronto did a great job of closing down on Atlanta United players and making life difficult in the midfield. Gressel had a moment in the ninth minute in which he receives a Miguel Almiron through-ball, but an errant touch by Gressel sent it out of reach and into the hands of the keeper. It was an ugly performance against a tough team, but it’s not indicative of his play moving forward or what he’s brought to the club, otherwise. Just a bad game.
Yamil Asad’s straight red card against TFC comes at a terrible time considering Martinez is still a few weeks from returning from injury. However, it presents a unique scenario for Tata Martino and interesting lineup choices heading into Montreal. With Asad out and Jacob Peterson questionable due to injury, could Kenwyne Jones get the nod to start as a target forward, moving Villalba into a second striker role. It’s ugly because that isn’t the ideal way Martino would like his team to play.
Also, can we talk about this?
That looks like a red card to me...
What you should conclude from this is simple: in a relatively bad game for Atlanta United, they went up against the Eastern Conference champions and earned a draw. At the worst we’ve seen this team this year, they still competed and gutted out a point on the road. For ANY club at ANY level, this is a good thing.