I could get used to this. Once again, in the waning moments when defeat looked like a certainty, Atlanta United pulled a goal out of their butts to give themselves a share of the spoils. It’s an impressive result — on the road against the top team in the Western Conference — despite the fact that it was a sloppy goal and generally unimpressive performance. Here’s what we learned:
Atlanta and Kansas City have polar opposite styles, and it showed
We knew this going into the game, of course. Sporting KC held the league’s best defensive record, and is well known for its patient, methodical possession that can frustrate opponents into mistakes. Atlanta seemed wary of this and decided to combat it in a couple of ways. The first, which was especially evident early in the match, was to recycle possession through goalkeeper Brad Guzan, practically tempting SKC to push their team forward and make something happen. This tactic offered some gaps for Atlanta to exploit in the buildup, but SKC remained tight and tough to break down.
The other way Atlanta attempted to change the flow of the game was to up the pressing and overall combativeness. Carlos Carmona and Jeff Larentowicz both picked up first half yellow cards for aggressive tackles. The Five Stripes also closed down SKC GK Tim Melia at every opportunity. Even Larentowicz, after picking up his yellow card, was pressing all the way upfield looking to cause turnovers near the SKC goal.
Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and Michael Parkhurst are very good and getting better
This is largely down to LGP’s improvement and understanding of his partner. We know what we’re getting with Parkhurst, and we know he’s solid. What we’ve been looking for this season is consistency, and LGP is starting to put in 7/10 performances on a regular basis. He’s learning to be more clever with his movement and passing so that he leaves the back line less exposed, yet still offers himself a chance to make an impact with his distribution.
Right about now, you’re probably thinking, “well what about the fact that he gave away a penalty?” Well, I don’t think he did. The ref decided to give it after Latif Blessing went down in the box to some innocuous upper body contact, but I thought that play was actually well dealt with by LGP. He was put in a tricky position by Jeff Larentowicz, but I thought the penalty was extremely harsh. LGP has had a run of very good games now, which is crucial to this team’s ultimate success.
It’s also really funny when he does this:
Playing without two of your stars is hard
Atlanta United were still without Josef Martinez for this match, and Greg Garza also missed out after separating his shoulder in the All-Star Game midweek. This meant that Julian Gressel, once again, started at right wing and Mikey Ambrose in place of Garza at left back. TO put it bluntly, I thought both of these players struggled in the match. Gressel is very poor in possession and doesn’t have much to his game when a player as direct and single-minded as Villalba is playing up top. being a right-footed player, Gressel rarely cuts inside when playing in this position, and considering Miguel Almiron’s affinity for playing in the left half space and Walkes’s limitations at right back, it’s hard for Gressel to make an impact on the game.
Ambrose’s struggles are more understandable. He’s a young reserve player who is still learning and doesn’t have much first-team experience to draw from. He lacked the match fitness that we are so accustomed to seeing from Garza, and he was often caught out of position and had to cynically pull back Latif Blessing to prevent counter attacks at least twice. He did manage to get a few crosses into the box, but we certainly missed the dynamism down the left flank that Greg Garza provides.
Atlanta’s knack for late goals is genuinely impressive
Listen, this game kinda sucked. It was boring, there’s no shame in admitting as much. Things weren’t coming off for us, we struggled to keep the ball, and we struggled to win the ball back in the second half against SKC’s well structured team shape. But this team’s ability to sieze on opportunity that doesn’t appear to be there is a wonderful quality. At the very least, it gives us hope that next time we find ourselves in this situation, we can still have hope. Atlanta has now scored 5 goals in the 80th minute or beyond in it’s last four games — an incredible stat and a testament to the team’s fitness and work rate.
Sporting KC is very well coached
We need to give credit to Sporting KC, who controlled much of the second half and really proved their quality in possession and defensively. I’m not sure how Ike Opara was not named to the All-Star team. He consistently snuffed out Tito Villalba’s sprinting knock-on dribbles, the first defender I’ve seen this year who had the pace to hang with the young Argentine. SKC isn’t the most gifted team in terms of raw talent, but they are well drilled in their team shape and are good at exploiting space to get themselves in dangerous positions. Sure, they could use some help up top with the departure of Dom Dwyer, but it’s no surprise as to why they are currently the top team in the Western Conference, and they’re definitely MLS Cup candidates. They will be a tough out in the playoffs.