It’s finally happened. What started with a group of 20-something rag tag strangers on a practice field in Bradenton, Florida has culminated in a group that is running roughshod through every opponent on it’s way to the MLS playoffs. Here’s what we learned from the 3-0 win over Philadelphia Union that sealed the deal.
Julian Gressel should be the Rookie of the Year
Julian Gressel established himself as one of the favorites for MLS Rookie of the Year early in the season. He started the team’s franchise opener and kicked on with assists and goals. But then he hit a lull, and in the meantime, other rookies, Minnesota’s Abu Danldai in particular, crept into the conversation as the league’s top rookie goalscorer. Gressel’s numbers still stood out, but he hasn’t been at the top of the national media’s consciousness...until the last week and a half. Since September 16, Gressel has started twice and notched a goal and three assists, including a “combo meal” (a term I’m coining right now) with a goal and and assist Wedenesday. He should see even more action and opportunities through the remainder of the season.
The team can manage without Miguel Almiron (for now)
Miguel Almiron is a supremely talented player. Tata Martino called him the team’s “franchise player” and Josef Martinez admitted after the match Wednesday that he’s the best player on the team. There’s no questioning his ability or the heights he will undoubtedly climb in his fledgling career. But right now, on this team, the squad is able to manage his absence because there are players who can slot in and mimic what he does. It’s more of a credit to the collective group than any one individual who replaces him. Gressel can carry the ball in midfield, Yamil Asad can assume the playmaking duties, and Kratz can hit a better free kick than Miggy himself. If there’s a silver lining to his injury, it’s that this squad can remain very competitive despite the absence of a player of his quality.
The second seed in the East is of vital importance
Tata Martino has come under national scrutiny — in particular from the Extra TIme Radio podcast — for not rotating his star players, which clearly lead to Miguel Almiron’s hamstring pull (/s). But Tata said in his press conference following the match Wednesday that the team is still fighting for every point possible, and for good reason. If Atlanta finishes third or lower in the standings, the FIve Stripes will have to play three days after the Toronto game in what Martino called “a final.” The rhetoric criticizing Tata has centered around the manager not preparing his team to be in the best physical condition for the pivotal moment of the playoffs. But to Tata, the best way he can have his team ready to compete for a championship is to get the extra rest following that last game of the regular season. (I happen to agree with him.)
Josef Martinez is solely focused on a championship
Josef passed up multiple opportunities Wednesday night to add to his goal tally in search of the highly coveted Golden Boot. He told reporters why he did so after the game.
"Nah. I'm thinking about a championship. I can buy a golden boot in a store." pic.twitter.com/9uj3HnfERl— Dirty South Soccer (@DirtySouthSoc) September 28, 2017
Chris McCann has gone from afterthought to valuable squad player
I will hold my hands up on this one, I criticized Chris McCann for his play earlier in the season (his wife was not happy with me, understandably). And to be honest, I stand by it. He wasn’t playing well. He didn’t move the ball quickly or precisely. But in those matches, he was playing as a central midfielder, and Tata Martino may have unlocked the best of the Irishman by selecting him as the player to replace Garza at LB during his leave of absence with injury. But of course it’s not all or even mostly down to the manager. It’s down to the player. Credit Chris McCann for not dropping his head, but continuing to fight for a place in the squad and to make himself a valuable member of the team. Sure, he will probably never live up to the value of his cap number (which is inflated for many reasons beyond his on-field ability), but the most we can ask for now, as fans, is for him to give us valuable minutes. He’s doing that now. Kudos to him.