WE’RE GOING TO THE PLAYOFFS Y’ALL.
Atlanta United continues to steamroll a hapless MLS in their new stadium. The Five Stripes powered past the Philadelphia Union Wednesday night in Atlanta with relative ease, cruising to a 3-0 win that clinched the first playoff appearance in team history. Because it’s the team’s first year. And we’re still going to the playoffs. And it came easy.
Atlanta United controlled the game from the outset. Early on, the Five Stripes blasted multiple shots on frame but each were parried away from Philadelphia goalkeeper Andre Blake, who did just about everything possible to keep Atlanta off the board.
Future rookie of the year Julian Gressel finally got the better of Blake in the 27th minute.
Moments later, Gressel added an assist to his stat sheet when he found Josef Martinez outside the 18-yard-box. Martinez did exactly what everyone expected him to.
The goal was Martinez’s 18th in 17 games which is somehow not a typo. He even capped his goal with a special nod to his injured teammate, Miguel Almiron.
“My 18 goals, he’s helped me on about half of them,” Martinez said of the celebration. “He’s the most important player on the team.”
Atlanta United ended the first half with 68% of the possession and seven shots on target compared to zero shots on target for Philadelphia.
Philadelphia came out aggressively in the second half, finally forcing Brad Guzan to make his first save of the night in the 51st minute. The Five Stripes thought they had responded to the pressure in the 55th minute when Martinez danced through the Philadelphia back line and away from Blake before playing the ball back to Tito Villalba. Villalba took the opportunity to float the ball over the remaining Union defenders in what would have been one of the best team goals of the Atlanta United season, but VAR gonna VAR. The footage showed Josef to be offside by a couple of inches and the goal was rescinded.
Philadelphia continued to apply pressure while Atlanta attempted to hit back on the counter. Both teams came close to finding a goal, including a shot from Philadelphia’s Haris Medunjanin outside the box that clipped the crossbar.
After both teams traded minor jabs for most of the half, newly-subbed Jacob Peterson finally landed a knockout blow when he raced onto a through ball from Tito Villalba, danced around Blake and put Atlanta up three to seal the game in the 88th minute.
The team picks up another win on tired legs. Atlanta has played six games in a remarkably short amount of time, and Tata Martino says that a few changes were needed tonight to get an end result despite fatigue.
“We played really well in the first half. We were able to control the game,” he said through a translator. “But in the second half I think the first 20 minutes or so you could notice our fatigue. We decided to change our formation to 4-4-2 leaving Josef and Tito up top.”
That same fatigue may have been the cause of a hamstring injury for Miguel Almiron a game ago, but Martino says this team showed tonight that they’re confident enough to make it through a stretch without the Paraguayan.
“We overcame a tough test earlier in the year by having to replace Josef,” Martino said. “But the injuries came in different moments. At that time we weren’t as trusting of a team. Right now we’re trying to overcome Miguel’s absence but the team is in a better place.”
It helps when the player filling in for an injured superstar goes off in the first half. Julian Gressel picked up his fourth goal and ninth assist tonight in his 19th start as a rookie. Martino quickly agreed after the game that Gressel had earned himself the Rookie of the Year award tonight.
“I think he deserves it. I thought tonight he played an excellent game. Not just by looking at what he did on the field but by looking at what we ask of him as a coaching staff. Today he did everything exactly how we asked him too. I think looking at the players who were in their first seasons in the MLS he definitely deserves the award,” Martino said.
Gressel said he wasn’t concerned about his standing in the ROTY race. The midfielder, like the rest of the team, was focused on clinching a playoff spot.
“We wanted to clinch it today without looking at other teams,” Gressel said. “We wanted to do it ourselves. We got it done.”
Atlanta becomes the fourth MLS expansion team to reach the playoffs in the team’s first season. None of those teams were on a streak like the one Atlanta United is on at the end of their season.
Tonight the Five Stripes put 10 shots on target compared to just three for Philadelphia. They controlled possession 60% of the time in what was an example on a micro-scale of just how dominant Atlanta has been in September. Atlanta United has now outscored opponents 21-3 in their six home games in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on their way to 16 points out of a possible 18.
Coming into [a stretch like this] you know it can go one of two ways,” Jeff Larentowicz said postgame. “One way is it becomes difficult and you regress. The other way is you get on a roll you and find your rhythm. We got healthy, we had a break before hand and the stadium and the fans, it’s all kind of come together and the results have shown that.”
Atlanta heads to Foxboro to face New England on Saturday, hoping for a repeat of the first meeting between the teams, a 7-0 shellacking two Wednesdays ago at MBS. The Five Stripes sit in third place in the Eastern Conference standings, three points behind NYCFC with a game in hand.