198'16". That’s how much time had been played between these two teams before the New York Red Bulls finally found the back of the net. I understand they have a history to honor, but that’s taking it to extremes.
As losses go, this one was glorious. After almost putting it out of reach before I even finished getting a beer out of the fridge, Atlanta United decided to essentially play rope-a-dope in a fashion we hadn’t seen since the game in Minnesota back in March. The stakes in this one were obviously much higher though.
The Five Stripes had just 30.9% possession for the entire game, and even in their best 5-minute stretch had just 46.2% possession. Even against New York City FC at Yankee Stadium they managed 43.5% for the game. This was a defensive performance for the ages. As a team Atlanta racked up 43 tackles, 8 interceptions, 59 clearances and 26 blocks. 47% of the game was played in Atlanta’s defensive third, and just 14% in the attacking third. Take a look at the average player positions:
Atlanta is in blue, in case you couldn’t guess. Only Josef averaged in the attacking half, and that just barely. But now compare that to the heatmap:
Despite allowing 13 shots, only 6 were on target, and of those only 5 were in the penalty area, and included some easy stops at that. Basically, Atlanta’s defense was a solid impenetrable wall.
Here’s another remarkable statistic: Atlanta attempted just 258 passes, and of those completed only 126 for accuracy of just 48.8%. That, apparently, is the lowest accuracy ever recorded since Opta began tracking that data point for MLS.
Which is to say, Atlanta was happy to simply boot the ball away all night, safe in the knowledge of a three-goal advantage and a defense that had allowed just one goal in the three previous games.
To do all this, Tata Martino made a simple tactical adjustment, pulling Greg Garza and Franco Escobar back from wingback to fullback positions, and Miguel Almiron back into midfield from a secondary striker position and running with a 5-4-1 formation. Which is to say, he parked a bus with no standing room in it. And Miggy took that midfield role on in masterful fashion, producing a defensive performance we have never quite seen from him before.
And yet, the good guys still managed 6 shots, 4 of which were on target, and those could well be deemed better chances than New York’s. Yes, Atlanta made better use of their possession, generating a shot on goal for every 6’58” of possession compared to the Red Bulls’ 10’22”. Moreover, their 1.70 xG indicates that New York’s evening was futile anyway (Atlanta’s xG was 0.68, which seems weirdly low, as was last Sunday’s at 1.08).
And so, the New York title drought continues. I’ll pause while you
shed a tear snigger. They remain one of 4 original MLS teams who have never won the Cup (the other three are FC Dallas, the New England Revolution and the defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny). Think on that: even the Colorado Rapids have an MLS Cup. It took New York 13 years just to win the Eastern Conference and 18 years to win a Supporters’ Shield.
In contrast, Atlanta United is now the second fastest expansion team to make the MLS championship game, behind the Chicago Fire which won MLS Cup in its first year, 1998 (the Houston Dynamo won everything in their first year (2006), but they were a relocation, not an expansion team).
About the only thing that really went wrong for United on Thursday evening was getting a bad decision from our old friend Mark Geiger who incredibly did not give a second yellow to the Portland Timbers’ Zarek Valentin. That means both teams will be at full strength suspension-wise for next Saturday’s dust-up (or should that be rubber-pellet-up?).
538 has Atlanta as 77% favorite to win MLS Cup, which sounds about right so long as Liam Ridgewell is prevented from causing bodily injury.
So, we survived New Jersey (fan-launched projectiles notwithstanding), for which everyone should get bonus points in the penultimate 2018 Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match was, of course, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. It may have been Tata’s bus, but LGP was driving it. Special Mentions go to Miguel Almiron and Eric Remedi, who made it hard to even get as far as LGP to begin with, and also to Michael Parkhurst who was almost as impassable.
GK: Brad Guzan – 8. Last week they blocked his view. This week they had to resort to knocking the ball out of his hands. 5 saves, and 1 late goal that mattered not a whit.
LB: Greg Garza – 7. 3 blocks and 9 clearances. that’s pretty good. He looked a little slow, though, which may have to do with the leg injury from Sunday, or with the fact the he had Miggy zipping past him all night. Or both.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 9. 5 tackles, 2 interceptions and 14 clearances. 2 of those tackles were on one play, too. He was simply everywhere. The best central defender in MLS? I’d say so.
CB: Michael Parkhurst – 8. 1 tackle, 2 interceptions and 16 clearances. Had to leave after 83 minutes thanks to a truly reckless challenge on LGP from Bradley Wright-Phillips, but that was a true captain’s effort. He now progresses to his 5th MLS Cup game. He was on the losing side in the previous four.
CB: Jeff Larentowicz – 8. Just 2 tackles and 4 clearances. Sounds like he was phoning it in compared to LGP and Parky, but those stops were pretty clutch.
RB: Franco Escobar – 7. Nowhere near the same output from Franco as we had on Sunday, but then he was defending on the Daniel Royer-Connor Lade side of the field. 4 tackles, 6 clearances.
LM: Miguel Almiron – 8. Miggy had 6 tackles, 1 interception and 4 clearances. How often have I cited defensive stats when evaluating him? Never? On the other hand, being the target of a barrage likely put him off the idea of attacking and his depth perception was probably shot to hell . Left the game after 90 minutes.
CM: Eric Remedi – 8. They tried to get past him, but they just couldn’t. This is what he was hired to do: a solid presence in holding midfield. If it weren’t for Escobar, he’d probably be the most improved player on the team this season.
CM: Julian Gressel – 7. A not especially great game, but he took his share of rough tackles and slowed the game down well as needed. Had a nice chance on goal.
RM: Darlington Nagbe – 8. When Atlanta did get the ball going forward, it was almost always through Nagbe, whose ball control is something to behold. Next up: his old team.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 8. 15 seconds, so nearly. That would have been interesting. A relatively early exit after 70 minutes looking slightly pained, which I suspect was an acting cameo for Marrufo’s benefit.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 7. Had one good attempt on goal, and a rather weaker one blocked late.
SUB: Miles Robinson – 7. Despite coming in during the most frenetic part of the game, Miles touched the ball just once, a headed clearance. Considering how much they had attacked Parky, whom he replaced, that’s remarkable.
SUB: Ezequiel Barco – N/R. A late sub and touched the ball just twice in a game that was entirely unsuited to him.
COACH: Tata Martino – 8. Tata clearly has this playoff thing down.
TRAVELING FANS: 11. I don’t know how many of you there were, but you turned the volume all the way up. In what was already a pretty loud stadium, your voices came through the Fox broadcast loud and clear. Well done.