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Five Thoughts: Atlanta United holds serve against the Chicago Fire in home finale

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Love it or hate it, the Supporters Shield comes down to the last game of the season.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The kids are alright

Without Miguel Almiron and Tito Villalba, two of Atlanta United’s most dynamic attacking threats, Tata Martino surprised yours truly—and I assume most of the rest of us—by electing to go with two teenagers to spearhead the attack in Andrew Carleton and Ezequiel Barco. Having played often recently, Barco was an obvious choice, despite not having started a match since early last month against D.C. United. Carleton, on the other hand was a shocker to start this must-win game considering it’s only the second time he’s featured in the starting XI this season.

Martino’s faith in the kids paid off. Barco’s ability to progress the ball from midfield into the attack was key for Atlanta, as evidenced by his setup for Franco Escobar’s opening goal, and Andrew Carleton was dangerously unpredictable in the final third. While both players predictably suffered from fatigue in the second half due to a lack of regular starting minutes, Martino told media after the game that he was not fearful to put the youngsters in this hugely important situation.

“It’s true that they’re young, but they have to play because they are good players and they’ve have shown to the coaching staff – in Barco’s case this season and in Carleton’s case for almost two seasons – that they are capable,” said Martino. “I thought the young guys did a good job in the first half.”

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone (Pt. I)

No, I’m not talking about Tata Martino or Miguel Almiron, I’m talking about Jeff Larentowicz. The veteran midfielder was left out of Martino’s starting lineup for the first time this season, and the three-man midfield in front of the back four struggled to maintain defensive structure and solidity. Chicago found success passing through Atlanta’s press, and the back line was left exposed when the ball was turned over at times in the middle of the park. I know Dirty South Soccer is criticized for being overly loyal to Larentowicz, but this match highlighted his importance at the base of midfield, which allows his midfield partners to play freely without worrying about making mistakes.

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone (Pt. II)

Now I’m talking about Miguel Almiron... and Tito Villalba of course. Despite winning the game in what afterward can feel lack a pretty ho-hum victory, Atlanta United desperately missed the two Paraguayan playmakers. Late in the game, Chicago looked like the fresher and more aggressive team. Perhaps that normal when you have a one team trying to hang on to a one-goal lead and the other with nothing to lose pushing hard for an equalizer. But this moment of the game is when Atlanta missed the Paraguayan duo—particularly Almiron—the most. How often have we seen Miguel punish teams for throwing too many men forward and combining with Josef Martinez on the counter? Instead, Sunday we were left with Josef trying to do similar things at the end of the game with players like Kevin Kratz. With all due respect to Kratz, he and Almiron are... much different players.

In fact, Atlanta’s speed in transition throughout the game was much different than what we are so used to seeing. And it makes sense. Without your two fastest players in the team (though Franco Escobar would argue that he’s part of that conversation), Atlanta’s transition from defense to attack was always going to look and feel different. Barco was able to help the team’s ball progression early in the game until he fatigued, and Carelton, for what he offered with his creativity in the final third, does not force defenders back the same way Tito’s vertical runs do. Let’s hope the pair get back to full fitness ASAP (as if that needed to be said).

Is Josef alright?

I’m not *worried* but I am *concerned* about Josef. Atlanta’s star striker failed to convert on any of his quality goalscoring opportunities Sunday, some of which he’s definitely done better with in other moments this season. I don’t know what to think about it to be honest. On the one hand, I want to just relax and act like everything is fine, when internally I’m feeling like everything is definitely not fine. Looking back at Sunday’s win, the reality of the situation is that the team scored from a crazy left-footed shot from its right back and an own goal off a fumbled cross. That’s not going to get it done in the playoffs. To be fair to Josef, the team as a whole struggled through much of the second half, and the team mindset seemed more preoccupied with keeping Chicago off the board than trying to launch dangerous counterattacks.

Atlanta will represent the league on a continental level. I can’t wait.

While we still have one more sweaty-palmed, pit-stained game to get through to see if Atlanta can secure the Supporters’ Shield, the three points gained Sunday secured Atlanta United’s qualification through to the 2019 Scotiabank (don’t forget the sponsor!) CONCACAF Champions League. While it may seem like a minor accomplishment with so much still to play for, it shouldn’t be diminished how important it is for this club, and it sets a marker for what Atlanta should be aspiring for each and every season—much like “Top 4” in the Premier League. The players were certainly aware of what they’d accomplished post-match.

“It was a goal of ours coming into the season, so it’s always nice to achieve goals,” captain Michael Parkhurst said after the game. “We don’t know who is going to be part of the team right now, but to qualify is one thing. The pressure is on now, (Major League Soccer)needs to go out there and do well, and we think that we can go out there and represent (Major League Soccer)well, and that will be the goal, but there is a lot of things to achieve before then.”