Growing up in England, where people will bet on almost anything, the most popular ways to bet on soccer games used to be the ”football pools”. Selecting from all four English League divisions and the top two Scottish League divisions, the aim was to pick 8 games that would end in “score draws” (i.e., tied games other than 0-0). Since there would be up to 56 games a week to choose from, that was actually a pretty tough challenge.
It would not have been quite so tough in MLS this weekend. Six of the top seven teams in the Eastern Conference played against each other, all recording 1-1 scorelines. The sole exception was Orlando City SC, which managed to lose to the incredibly average Vancouver Whitecaps 5-2 (and it wasn’t really that close). That was Orlando’s fifth straight loss and they remain in a playoff spot by a single point.
That’s a long and unnecessarily nostalgic way to say that Atlanta United’s road point this weekend did them absolutely no harm whatsoever in the standings. No ground lost on anyone in the Conference except the still struggling Toronto FC. Indeed, a tie at New York City FC is nothing to be sneezed at given their perfect 6-0-0 home record until Saturday.
This is especially true given that the key play in this game occurred in the second minute. Namely, the scandalously uncarded foul by Alexander Ring on Miguel Almiron. Robert Sibiga let a lot of stuff go in this game, and that’s OK, but the combo hack and push was cynical as well as dangerous and deserved sanction. Miggy bravely soldiered on for the remainder of the first half, but probably should have been pulled.
That play took Atlanta completely out of its rhythm, and also out of what was going to be a difficult game plan anyway. Set up in a 3-5-2 (albeit designed to play more as a 3-4-3), space was going to be critical. After all, Atlanta plays a wide-open game that mercilessly capitalizes on finding space in the midfield. On that outrageous postage stamp in the Bronx, that is always going to be hard to find, and when your key playmaker is taken out and moving around with his arm in an imaginary sling the strategy is good only for the trash can.
Replacing Miggy with Romario Williams at half time was a gutsy call, and for a brief period it looked like it might pan out. But after Josef’s 48th minute goal, Atlanta ceded 68.5% of the possession and of NYCFC’s 25 total shots, 20 were in that final 40 minutes. Up to and including the goal, NYCFC had outshot Atlanta only 5-4 and only 2-1 in shots on goal. Conceding possession that heavily is OK against, say, Minnesota (who had 71.2% possession and 13 shots - 3 on target - against a 10-man Atlanta earlier this season), but against the second-best team in the conference not so much. Even with limited distance to cover, that is exhausting and the inevitable eventually happened. The heatmap says it all:
Yes, that is Atlanta’s own goal area the big red blob is in.
Still, Atlanta continues to have the best road record in the league (tied at 2PPG with FC Dallas, although Atlanta has played 2 more road games), and is also the only team in the league with a road record as good as its home record.
On to the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is Brad Guzan. Well duh. Special Mention is shared by Josef Martinez and Julian Gressel for combining on what will inevitably be Goal of the Week.
GK: Brad Guzan – 9. 1 point for every save, I guess. It took me a while to find it, but the MLS single-game saves record is a staggering 15, set all the way back on 4/5/97 by Tony Meola in a 2-1 MetroStars loss to DC United. Brad’s new Atlanta record is of course way short of that but impressive in the current MLS era, especially given the opponent. And I’m not going to say he stood on his head because that’s a dumb phrase. And it comes from hockey. Or should that be it’s dumb because it comes from hockey?
LB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 6.5. LGP started in on his next yellow card suspension, thereby losing a half point. 3 tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 clearances and 3 blocks. Limited movement forward.
CB: Michael Parkhurst – 7. Played a horribly casual ball back towards Guzan that necessitated one of his magnificent saves, but otherwise was pretty good. 6 tackles, 2 interceptions, 9 clearances and 3 blocks.
RB: Franco Escobar –7. Recorded a quadruple triple, if that’s a thing ( 3 each of tackles, interceptions, clearances and blocks). Made some attempt to play forward, not that the team as whole did well on that front. Came out after a very tiring 85 minutes.
LWB: Mikey Ambrose – 6. Took a step back in this game. Not sure if he has done enough to steal the regular starting spot from McCann. We will possibly see Wednesday night.
LDM: Jeff Larentowicz – 6. Let’s face it, Larry was pretty invisible this game. Midfield play, even defensive midfield play, was not greatly in evidence on Saturday.
RDM: Darlington Nagbe – 7. Nagbe actually led the team in touches, tied with Gressel at 62. That reflects both the absence of Miggy and the lack of possession. Usually that number would be at best middle of the pack for an Atlanta starter.
RWB: Julian Gressel – 7. There was precisely 1 successful open play cross in this game of the 20 attempted by both teams (Atlanta had only 4 total). That’s a pretty low percentage, obviously, but the quality of the assist more than made up for the lack of quantity. Julian also led the team in touches (62) and passes (53).
CAM: Miguel Almiron – 5. It’s a bit tough to rate Miggy given that he only played about 90 seconds of effective soccer. After that he was clearly hampered by the shoulder injury. In his 45 minutes he had a mere 27 touches and 20 passes.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 8. Josef tried to make up for the lack of a fully operational Miggy by flying all over the field, even recording a rare block in the penalty area. The goal was a beauty of course. He is now 3 goals clear at the top of the Golden Boot race, and will go head-to-head against the #2 scorer Gyasi Zardes on Wednesday (who has played 1 more game).
FWD: Ezequiel Barco – 6. It’s perhaps not too surprising that Barco had a hard time adjusting to this game. Atlanta’s entire South American contingent found it tough in their first game at Yankee Stadium last season, after all. And losing his attacking midfield partner early didn’t help. Was pulled after 66 minutes.
SUB: Romario Williams – 6.5. Williams’ place on the senior roster has been hard earned, and, at this stage, fully deserved. Bringing him in at half time was an aggressive YOLO kind of decision and for a short spell it worked as intended. But an attacker can be effective if his team feeds him service. Loses a half point for the yellow card.
SUB: Kevin Kratz – 6. Replaced Barco in the 66th minute and did little to improve matters.
SUB: Sal Zizzo – 5. Came on for Escobar late. Had minimal impact on the game.
COACH: Tata Martino – 7. I said this about Tata last week: “Tough to rate a coach when the game plan goes out the window after 20 minutes.” Take the zero off that for this game. Rolled the dice at half time.
YANKEE STADIUM – 0. There’s a reason a baseball team is only nine men.