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Five Thoughts: Atlanta United avenges Red Bulls woes with emphatic display

The Five Stripes take a massive lead on the road for the second leg.

Atlanta was “the protagonist” in every sense of the word

In a matchup of MLS’s two best teams in Atlanta United and New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, no one expected this tie to be over after 90 minutes. And it’s not. Greg Garza, Michael Parkhurst, Brad Guzan, Jeff Larentowicz, Tata Martino, and many more were quick to point out that Atlanta’s 3-0 win hadn’t ended the series. But, damn if they didn’t come close. The win adds to a list of improbable results for Atlanta United down the stretch of the season both positively and negatively. Thankfully, the playoffs have been nothing but rainbows and unicorns, and to be quite honest, I’m concerned about this. It all just seems too good to be true — like we’re living in a fantasy waiting for the bubble to burst and for us to fall back to reality. That’s not saying I expect that to happen — this teams seems too good — but it’s just unexplored territory in my personal sports fandom, and I have to assume for many others as well.

Tata Martino learned and adapted

Atlanta traveled to Red Bull Arena on September 30 and tried to beat Red Bulls (and clinch a Supporters’ Shield) playing the way it had for the majority of the last two seasons — playing out of the back, deliberately drawing the opposition forward and expoing the space in behind them. It, of course, failed and Atlanta lost in embarrassing fashion, hardly able to get out of its own half.

Sunday was very much different. Instead of Chris McCann and Julian Gressel on the wings, Tata Martino used a much more athletic pair in Greg Garza and Franco Escobar. Martino also clearly instructed his team to play the ball longer, especially under duress or off goal kick situations when Red Bulls showed a press. The teams directness put pressure on Red Bulls back line, who are much more accustomed to defending “from the front” and allowing their center backs time to read the play in front of them and step forward to win the ball. Sunday they were often running backward toward their goal against Atlanta’s fast, dynamic attacking players.

Franco Escobar was the man of the match, and has been man of the playoffs

Atlanta United’s performance Sunday night provided a glut of seven-out-of-ten performances, but standing above all of them was Franco Escobar. And maybe it shouldn’t have surprised us. The Argentine put in two of his best performances of the season in the two matches prior against NYCFC. It wasn’t just his 72’ goal that earned him the honor, it was EVERYTHING else he did. His defending was exceptional. His aggressiveness set a tone. His speed down the wing ran Daniel Royer ragged. And it’s all the more impressive that on a night full of fine performances from Atlanta, Escobar stood out among the crowd.

It’s Escobar’s third successive dominant performance so far this playoffs, and even his teammates are impressed. Josef Martinez told media postgame that Franco Escobar “is a different player than he was when we met,” and when I asked Leandro Gonzalez Pirez about this assertion, he laughed and vehemently agreed. Tata Martino said of Escobar, “this is the player we knew we bought.” Sometimes a bit of patience and the right circumstances can bring the best out of a player. We’re seeing that now with Escobar.

Atlanta fans brought it (again)

No words. Honestly. The fans were incredible Sunday night. Almost everyone was in their seats on time for the stadium-wide tifo, which was incredible, and Mercedes-Benz Stadium was rocking all night.

Tito Villalba and Ezequiel Barco are proving to be invaluable super subs

For all the hype/importance these two players may have once had to Tata Martino’s best XI, both Villalba and Barco find themselves on the outs of that selection now. But that doesn’t mean they are any less valuable to the team as substitutes coming off the bench. It’s a near perfect pairing to bring on together to play on the counter against an opposition that is pushing for a goal. Barco can dribble out of a tight space and hold the ball up, while Villalba can use his dynamic pace, his underrated ability to beat a defender 1v1 in space, and his wicked shooting technique to score crucial goals. Tata Martino is right in saying after the match that no team in the league has this kind of weaponry coming off the bench.

Sunday night was a perfect example not just of how well Barco and Villalba work together, but how valuable their contributions can be. With the score at 2-0 and an astonishing EIGHT minutes of time added to the match, a goal for either side would change the trajectory of the tie. If Red Bulls could’ve clawed one back, it’d have given them a valuable road goal, meaning a simple 1-0 win at Red Bull Arena would’ve been enough to send them through to the Final. Instead, the goal went Atlanta’s way — thanks to Villalba — and thus, Red Bulls will now need to score a minimum of three goals, and if they concede, at least five. Five is a large number. I like that number.