Wednesday was a good day. No, check that: it was a very good day.
- I woke up to find the United bid wins the 2026 World Cup. With more than 2/3rds of the vote. This will be the second home World Cup in many of your lifetimes (for me it will be the third, as I was living in England in 1966). Oh, and Atlanta was a key part of that win.
- Atlanta United shut out the Columbus Crew on the road. That snapped Columbus’ 9-game league unbeaten streak and was just their second home loss of the year (third if you count the penalty shoot-out loss to the Chicago Fire in the Open Cup).
- Orlando extended its losing streak to 6. Against Montreal. Let that sink in a moment: against Montreal. The 5-11-0 Montreal. And they were creamed 3-0. By a team with a -16 goal difference.
Could there have been anything else to make that day any better? Well, yes in fact: it was my Mom’s birthday. Feel free to share in my filial joy.
So, over the space of five days Atlanta earns 4 road points against the #2 and #3 teams in the conference. That’s huge. 2 points would have been more than acceptable. Atlanta is now 5 points clear at the top of the Eastern Conference and no one with games in hand can catch up. Perhaps more interestingly, Atlanta now has a better road record than home record (2.13 PPG vs. 2.00 PPG). That’s also the best road record in the league (the average is exactly 1.00 PPG). Even better, our remaining road opponents have a combined home PPG of just 1.59. Excluding Atlanta, the league average is 1.77. Also, our remaining home opponents have a combined road average of 0.85 PPG. Yes, you got that: Atlanta’s entire remaining schedule is below average.
There were some interesting factors in this game. First is that Atlanta shifted back to the 4-2-3-1 from the 3-5-2 we have seen so much this year. This is significant for three reasons: 1) it matched Columbus’ own formation so the game was press v. press; 2) it was done with no changes in personnel; and 3) the team switched formations late game once again, moving to the 3-5-2 to close the game out. The combination of 2 and 3 is particularly good, as it highlights the increasing flexibility of Atlanta’s game plans.
Overall, it was a pretty well-balanced match. Consider the heatmap:
This tells us a few things. First, clearly Columbus tried to force the ball up through the middle, whereas Atlanta went wide. Not only that, but wide right. In fact, all 6 of Atlanta’s shots came from the right side of the field (although both goals were served from the left). Second, Atlanta fell back late into a relatively defensive posture, much as they had all game in Yankee Stadium on Saturday, and reflecting the formation shift to the 3-5-2. Third, Columbus were wasteful of their chances. Despite outshooting Atlanta 13-6, they were even at 3 in shots on goal. Notably, Gyasi Zardes was off his game and looked to be back to the terrible first touch that has been a long-standing criticism of him.
Possession was relatively even too, with Atlanta having a 53-47 edge for the game as a whole, although they allowed Columbus to dominate for the final 25 minutes with 72% possession over that final stretch. So Atlanta scored once early from the press, and once late from the counter while absorbing significant pressure themselves.
All in all, a very satisfying evening. And with that, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is a fairly tough call. To be honest, this was a strong team performance and no one player really stood out over the others. In fact, leading the team’s Audi Index ratings was, for the second straight game, Brad Guzan, but this time with a relatively meager 514 score. However, I am going to agree with the general consensus and give the honors to Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who was a monster in defense. Special Mentions go to Franco Escobar and Jeff Larentowicz, who both turned in very creditable defensive performances on top of working well in attack.
GK: Brad Guzan – 8. Another very solid performance from the man between the pipes, outshining the young phenom Zack Steffen at the other end. 3 saves, all of them good, on the evening.
LB: Mikey Ambrose – 6.5. A good if unspectacular showing from Mikey. Was asked to shift from the wingback to the fullback position (which are admittedly not too different in Tata’s approach) and did so just fine. Was not as aggressive in attack as Franco Escobar on the other side. In defense, 1 interception, 1 clearance and 3 blocks. Picked up a yellow, which costs him half a point.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 8. No yellows for LGP this time out in what was a very active game for him. He led the team in touches (104), passes (89) and clearances (5, of which 4 were well inside the 18). There has been some chatter about a potential future captaincy for him (he already served as such in the Open Cup) and I can’t say as I find fault with that idea.
CB: Michael Parkhurst – 6.5. With LGP shifting to a more central role in the 4-man back line, Parky was in a position to cover the right side more than he has lately. He was generally effective, as always, but loses a half point for the early yellow card.
RB: Franco Escobar –7.5. Managed to avoid Guzan’s big paws for once, and proceeded to parlay the absence of a rung bell into a strong outing. 6 tackles, 1 interception, 4 clearances and 1 block in addition to a strong attacking contribution. Loses half a point for arguing with Unkel.
LDM: Jeff Larentowicz – 8. 4 tackles, 1 interception, 1 clearance and 4 blocks on the night. Was a one-man wall defending in the central midfield.
RDM: Darlington Nagbe – 7. With the exception of not attempting a shot, Nagbe’s game was very much the same as Miggy’s on Wednesday. Their heat maps are almost identical as are the rest of their stats. Playing as the more advanced defensive midfielder, he was able to contribute well to the attack.
LM: Ezequiel Barco – 7. Barco is still learning the Atlanta way and it could be a while before we really see what he is capable of. Right now, he has a tendency to hold on to the ball just a hair too long. Most of the time he has the talent and the strength to make that work, though. He is also extremely good at drawing fouls, sitting currently at #2 in the league in that category with 3.2 per game (leading is Magnus Eriksson of the San Jose Earthquakes at 3.3. You probably don’t care). Left the game after 76 minutes.
CAM: Miguel Almiron – 7. A minor surprise to start this game given the injury on Saturday, and he was not quite as sharp as he normally is. Assisted on Tito Villalba’s goal, and could have had a second assist on a 3-on-1 breakaway but opted for a long-range shot instead. Left in the 86th minute.
RM: Julian Gressel – 6. Julian hugs the right wing so tightly he must have permanent white stains on the soles of his cleats. And he still finds acres of space. This game his passing accuracy was well off his usual standard though and he was not quite the force we expect him to be.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 8. An abbreviated game due to the sacrifice of his nose on the excellent headed goal. But you can do that with an 11-day break before the next game. Extended his Golden Boot lead to 4. Left at half time to the ministrations of the medical staff.
SUB: Romario Williams – 7. Replaced Josef at half time. His biggest contribution to the game was his off-the-ball movement, keeping the Columbus defense on edge.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 8. Came in for Barco in the 76th minute for his first real work in a while. Tito has tamed the Lions, Tito has bossed the Crew. What else needs be said?
SUB: Miles Robinson – 6. Came on for Miggy late for defensive clean-up duty and had 1 interception in limited time.
COACH: Tata Martino – 8. Had this game completely figured out. Overall, a well-executed game plan.
INVESTMENT ACCOUNTS – 10. I recommend opening one in the very near future. Eight years to save up for World Cup tickets ain’t that long. Plus there’s all that money that’s been promised to FIFA:
FIFA is expecting $14 billion from the 2026 World Cup. Assuming there are about 50 million soccer fans in the US, that means we each have to save $35 a year to hand over in 8 years' time.— John Fuller (@JohnKFuller) June 13, 2018