We all knew it was coming before the season started. We still knew it after the team laid an egg in Houston in the first week. When Atlanta United dismantled LAFC 5-0 we knew it for sure. When they lost 3-1 to the New York Red Bulls there may have been a seed of doubt. When Josef Martinez gave Joe Bendik the stink-eye and blew away the scoring record, that doubt dissipated. When they came back to beat the San Jose Earthquakes 4-3 we really began to see the inevitable. When they blew the Supporters’ Shield in Toronto in the final week of the regular season, we got mad, but we still believed. Against all Atlanta sports history, we still believed.
And then they put the beatdown on New York City FC. First in New York, where no one wins. Ever. And then in the Benz, which apparently became a schoolhouse, because the Pigeons got an education. Two weeks later it became a woodshed for the Red Bulls. At this point, hope turned to anticipation. Back to New York, where the team graciously allowed a late goal. No matter. The best team in MLS regular season history had already lost. And everyone knew who the real best team was.
And then, on Saturday, anticipation turned to reality.
From the kick-off, it was a foregone conclusion. Atlanta played the 5-3-2 with a mix of opportunistic attack and cagey defense; that is, what we have come to expect as a normal game plan, at least in the playoffs. The Portland Timbers had no real response. Other than their own normal game that is, which is to say, hack as much as the referee will let them get away and intimidate the opponent, and throw in a few dives as well. Well, Alan Kelly let them get away with a lot, but no way was Atlanta going to be cowed in front of 73,019 noisy and rabidly partisan fans (well, 71,717 if you exclude the 1,300 Timbers Army contingent and the 2 utterly silent Portlanders sitting next to me).
In fact, it was Portland who were cowed. Liam Ridgewell (he of the infamous chokehold) admitted as much in the post-game interviews. But then that’s the whole point of being the better team over the season: that home game advantage is huge. Especially for Atlanta.
Through the first 40 minutes (i.e., right up until Josef Martinez broke the deadlock) Atlanta were completely dominant, controlling 59.8% of the possession and outshooting Portland 4-0. And if Kelly had been any less indulgent, it would have been 2-0 at that point for what looked like a pretty clear penalty call on Larrys Mabiala.
Portland managed just 3 shots on target all game, the first one coming just 3 minutes before half time, when Jeremy Ebobisse nearly found the bottom right corner of Brad Guzan’s goal. The other two were relatively routine stops late in the second half, both from outside the penalty area. Their xG for the game was 1.14. None of that is not going to cut it at the Benz, where Atlanta averaged 2.53 goals per game this season.
And so justice was served. We won. Big. It was hard-earned and thoroughly well-deserved. Congratulations, team. Congratulations, Tata Martino. Congratulations, Arthur Blank. Congratulations, Darren Eales, Carlos Bocanegra and the entire front office. Congratulations to the entire Atlanta United staff. Congratulations, supporters groups. Congratulations, Atlanta United fans everywhere.
Thus, for the last time this season, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is, of course, Josef Martinez. Special Mentions go to...everybody. Even Chris McCann. Well done, guys.
At this point I am sorely tempted to say, the hell with it, I’m giving them all a 10. But of course you know perfectly well that journalistic integrity reigns supreme here at DSS, so here are the actual ratings:
GK: Brad Guzan – 9. That first save was probably his best of the season, and what a time to produce it. Right before the half and killing a potential game-tying goal that would have changed everything in the locker room. He did mishandle the second save, but Michael Parkhurst was there to cover.
LB: Greg Garza – 8. Despite looking very active all game, Greg had just 46 touches and passing accuracy of 74.1%. Defensively he had 2 tackles, 1 clearance and 1 block. His Audi Index was -4 (wait till you see who got a worse score). Pulled in stoppage time.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 8. LGP pushed relatively high this game, despite Atlanta’s clear plan to keep numbers behind the ball. Just 69.1% passing, 3 interceptions, 1 clearance and 2 blocks.
CB: Michael Parkhurst – 9. Bridesmaid four times over in MLS Cup, Parky is at last a bride, and no one has earned it harder in the history of this league. He created the first goal by dispossessing Ebobisse, having studied his game enough to know his tendencies and exploit them. Cruelly, he was not credited with the assist, as the ball was misplayed by Ridgewell before it got to Josef. 2 interceptions, 4 clearances, 75% passing.
CB: Jeff Larentowicz – 9. Not overly visible in this game, Larry was the rock we come to know and love. He had a very solid 88.2% passing accuracy, and defensively 2 interceptions and 7 clearances.
RB: Franco Escobar – 9. OK, so the lowest Audi Index on the team was Chris McCann who chalked up -129 thanks to the foul and yellow card. The second worst though? Franco Escobar with a lousy -69. Admittedly he had very poor passing at 56.8%, but he scored a goal. A really nice goal at that. He is now officially Mr. Clutch. He also did to David Guzman and Jorge Villafaña what he did to Connor Lade and Daniel Royer: completely outrun them.
LM: Julian Gressel – 8. Julian’s cross led to the non-call on the penalty in the first half. Not a spectacular game, but he has become an indispensable part of the Atlanta game plan, and probably the best value for money in the squad.
CM: Eric Remedi – 9. Led all starters with passing accuracy of 94.1%. Yes, he even beat out Darlington Nagbe. He was, basically, impassable defensively. A very strong performance.
RM: Darlington Nagbe – 9. This was his game to win. Unlike Parky, he has now won every MLS Cup he has competed in (all 2 of them) and got his second against the team that saw him as expendable. Darlington’s game has blossomed under Tata Martino, who saw how to use him properly when neither Caleb Porter nor Jurgen Klinsmann could figure it out. Passing accuracy of only 88.9%, but he controlled the field from the middle all game.
FWD: Miguel Almiron – 9. What a way to go out. Nothing on the scoresheet, but he was trouble for the Portland defense all night. Taken off after 90 minutes to get his raucous and likely final standing ovation (well, come to think of it, to make more of an impression, shouldn’t we all have sat down and applauded politely?).
FWD: Josef Martinez – 10. The awards keep pouring in. Pretty much the only one he didn’t win this season was Latino del Año, which went to...oh yeah, Miguel Almiron. He did win the Golden Boot, the regular season MVP and MLS Cup MVP, becoming only the second to achieve that feat (Carols Ruiz, 2002). A goal and an assist, the latter being his first of the playoffs and 7th overall this season. However, if you take a shot and miss, should you really get credited with the assist? Left after 76 minutes to predictable adulation.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 8. Should have had a goal in second half stoppage time, which would have sent the crowd insane. That aside, he has accepted his role as the league’s premier supersub.
SUB: Ezequiel Barco – 8. Didn’t really do much this game. But hey, he took his knocks this year, accepted his fate and should have much to look forward to in 2019.
SUB: Chris McCann – 8. No discount for the yellow card. That was what he was brought on to do. Kill the game off.
COACH: Tata Martino – 10. Excelled himself in these playoffs, and yes, we are going to miss him.
NEW YORK RED BULLS: – 0. You’re going to the CONCACAF Champions League. You’re welcome. And yes, that was your name on the cow-catcher of the tifo (nice touch, SGs).
DSS READERS: 100. You’re the reason we are here. Thanks for sticking with us through the season!