Atlanta United does “big MLS” better than just about anyone else in the league. With more than 160 credentialed media in town from all over the country, and more than 72,000 fans packing Mercedes-Benz Stadium from all over the South, Atlanta’s 2018 home debut was a spectacle to say the least. So credit the players for putting on a performance fitting for the occasion, trouncing D.C. United by a final score of 3-1 in a game that never seemed as close as the full time score suggested. Here are five thoughts from yesterday’s match.
The 3-5-2 is a thing that works
As a nerd who loves to look at the tactical and analytical side of the game, it warms my cockles to see so many people talking about the change in formation that the Five Stripes deployed Sunday afternoon. Indeed the change helped the home side in a variety of ways. Atlanta dominated possession by packing midfield and moving the ageless wonder, Jeff Larentowicz, back into his favored role in central midfield. The new shape also allowed the team to dominate possession in long spells, especially in the first half, by overloading zones on the flanks and in defense. Atlanta was able to play keep-a-way, essentially, and D.C. realized early on that any attempt to win the ball high upfield would result in chasing shadows.
A Tito-Martinez forward partnership is tantalizing
Last season, when Josef Martinez missed roughly 3 months with a quadriceps injury, Tito Villalba filled the role with surprising success. His play wasn’t always the prettiest, but he was undoubtedly productive, scoring 13 goals and racking up 11 assists across the duration of the season. During those times, we saw him sprinting past back lines, similar to the way Josef Martinez does, except with even more top-end speed. When they were paired up top together on Sunday, they together created a dynamic force that was a nightmare for D.C. United to defend. Villalba assisted Martinez’s first goal, and scored on for himself late in the second half. The paring gave both players more freedom that they’re typically accustomed to, which added an extra element to Atlanta’s attack.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium was as loud as I’ve ever heard it
Maybe it’s just because it’s been so long since I’ve been here and simply misremember, but the crowd in attendance for Sunday’s match was the loudest I’ve heard for an Atlanta United match. The roars matched some of the loudest moments I can remember even watching the Falcons play in the Georgia Dome. Like, so loud it hurts. And that’s amazing and a testament to every single supporter in the building who made noise. Here’s the thing: The reaction to seeing a goal ripple the net, like Miguel Almiron’s screamer to make it 2-0, is so inherently primal — so instinctual — that you would likely make loud noises just sitting by yourself in your living room. Noises so loud you scare the dog. When you multiply that by 72,000, this is what you get. ****ing insanity.
Miguel Almiron was back to his best — in a new role
Almiron was on song against D.C. with a goal and an assist, but his game really shown in other moments. The way he recovered loose balls in midfield, the way he jukes and feints as he carries it forward, the way he lures defenders only to put his foot on the ball and roll it away is a sight to behold. When he’s full of confidence like he was yesterday, he’s magic. But for as pretty and nimble as he was with the ball, he was dogged in his pursuit without it. Since Martinez had Tito as a partner to help each other create space, Almiron was gifted the freedom to roam the field, and he did so with a ferocity that makes him so endearing to fans.
Michael Parkhurst is Atlanta’s most underrated player right now
The title of “most underrated” is naturally one that will change over the course of the season based on form, and, well, how highly we rate certain players. But right now, Mr. Underrated goes to club captain Michael Parkhurst, the veteran center back brought a calming influence to a team in turmoil in Houston. Then yesterday, Parkhurst manned the central role in the back 3 like he’s been doing it his entire career. But perhaps most surprising was how effective he was with his distribution. He set up several attacks using vision and technical ability to ping a sharp pass along the ground to an attacking midfielder or striker in space in the attacking third. While LGP typically gets the most love for his distribution from the back, right now it’s Atlanta’s other ageless wonder who is pulling the strings.