That was fun.
With momentum, an away goal and an MLS playoff-record crowd of 70,000+ all in its corner, Atlanta United punched its ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals with a fairly straightforward win over NYCFC on Sunday. Next up: nemesis New York Red Bulls, a team Atlanta’s never beaten (and may not have to beat to move to MLS Cup...we’ll see).
It was a little bit tough to come up with clear cut winners and losers from this one - there were several of them to choose from in either column - so this is far from an exhaustive list. But feel free to hop in the comments with your nominees.
I was interested to see what Atlanta United would do from a tactical standpoint in Sunday’s match, especially with Jeff Larentowicz’s being left off the team sheet resulting in a lineup that would be forced to adapt without the 35-year-old on the field. Martino took a risk in starting Miles Robinson in the back - the Massachusetts native’s first significant action with the first team since late May - to allow Greg Garza and Franco Escobar freedom to work the wings while dropping back to a five-man backfield when needed. The risk was rewarded as Robinson barely put a foot wrong in 90 minutes of action, and while he’s not received a good amount of time with the senior team, it’s his work with ATL UTD 2 that’s prepared him for moments like this. That’s to say nothing of Atlanta’s relentless press that frustrated NYC into foolish physical play and attempts to bait the Five Stripes into poor decisions with the ball, but credit belongs to Martino for pulling the right strings and keeping the team focused even after the Cityzens looked as if they would make things a bit interesting.
I have no idea if Miguel Almiron will be here next year - all I know is that when he’s not on the pitch, you can’t help but notice how much Atlanta misses him. The Paraguayan put in a remarkable 84-minute shift and showed once more why he’s one of the most complete and exciting players in MLS, proving to be practically unstoppable while showing an immense work rate on both sides of the pitch. And NYCFC knew it as they turned up the physicality in an unsuccessful attempt to cancel out his effect on the game. Oh, and his absolute banger of a free kick was just icing on the cake.
Getting Martinez back on the scoresheet would stand as a important achievement for Atlanta United if it was to see itself through to the conference finals. After being held without a goal in the first leg at Yankee Stadium, the Golden Boot winner and potential MVP frontrunner bagged a brace at the Benz, scoring from the mark in the first half and getting on the other end of a beautiful Eric Remedi feed and beating Sean Johnson one-on-one in the 81st to confirm Atlanta’s place in the final four.
Don’t get me wrong: David Villa has meant a tremendous deal to NYCFC in his five seasons with the club and to world soccer as a whole. On Sunday night, the 36-year-old made his mark on the match, but for the wrong reasons, including a couple of dustups involving him and Brad Guzan in the second half. Offensively...not so much, with just a pair of shots and none on frame. If it’s Villa’s last appearance in a blue kit, his tenure ended with a whimper.
I feel that NYCFC came in with the intent to street-fight its way to a positive result on away soil. The problem is that against a team like Atlanta United on a field like Mercedes-Benz Stadium, it doesn’t work. Apart from a late first-half goal and several spells of possession early in the second, NYC had very few answers for Atlanta’s relentless pressure and ended up paying the price. That falls squarely on the shoulders of its manager, who - and the cracks in the foundation showed in the team’s form leading up to the playoffs - despite having little trouble against Philadelphia in the knockout round, failed to have a clear tactical game plan in place. Instead, the Cityzens found themselves bounced in the semifinals for the third straight year.