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5 Thoughts: Win over Columbus Crew primes Atlanta United for stretch run

Atlanta enters the home stretch of the season, when each game matters

MLS: Columbus Crew at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday’s win was especially important.

Off the back of a bitterly disappointing 2-2 draw at home against Toronto FC two weeks ago—a game that saw the Five Stripes concede in stoppage time of each half, including the gut punch in the final moments—Sunday’s 3-1 win against the Columbus Crew was all the more important for a team soon to embark on a month-long road trip. The weight of the occasion intensified even further on the eve of the match, when Atlanta’s closest Supporters’ Shield rivals, New York Red Bulls and New York City FC, both dropped points to allow Atlanta to take a lead in the neck-and-neck race.

But as Tata Martino admitted after the match, his team has been positioned to gain ground on its league rivals previously this season and hadn’t taken advantage of those opportunities. These tangible and psychological factors appeared to give Atlanta United all the motivation it needed to grind its way to victory Sunday. When Miguel Almiron’s left-footed strike hit the back of the net to seal the win late in the game, the relief of the stressful moment was palpable. The fans erupted, Miguel Almiron ripped off his shirt as if to signify ridding the weight from his shoulders, and even Tata Martino—yes, stoic Tata—lept into the arms of his assistant coaches.

“It’s just a relief,” Martino explained through a translator after the match. “We wanted to win at home and every once in a while I celebrate a goal like that. I thought the game in the second half was so beautiful that I had the feeling that I had to shout.”

Tito on the left is fine, but Tito on the right is magic.

With Ezequiel Barco remaining out of the starting lineup and right back Franco Escobar returning to allow Martino to return to his favored 4-man defensive line, the Argentine manager decided to revert back to a formation he used successfully on the road in Montreal three weeks ago. Tito Villalba started on the left wing for the first time in an Atlanta uniform in that match, but you wouldn’t have known it by the way he affected the game, providing Josef Martinez with an assist in the first half. Sunday, against undoubtedly a better team in the Columbus Crew, Villalba had less space to work and more defensive responsibility in midfield, thus diminishing his attacking output. By the midpoint of the second half, he was looking like a player who possibly could have been substituted off as Atlanta searched for a winning goal.

Martino decided to introduce Ezequiel Barco to take his place on the left, but instead of removing Villalba, Martino moved him back to his natural right side in place of Julian Gressel. It proved to be the Midas touch, as Villalba scored one of the best goals of his Atlanta career (of which there are many) just two minutes after the move.

The stars are aligning.

Not only does Atlanta now have control in the Eastern Conference after the win, but it has something even more important: key players returning to the lineup. Atlanta has been without two core components in Greg Garza and Darlington Nagbe for many weeks now, and Martino told the media this week in training that both are progressing and will be returning to the team for the stretch run of the regular season.

Atlanta’s remaining schedule also sets up nicely for its prospects of winning the Supporters’ Shield. The team has the easiest schedule left in MLS, with only two of its remaining nine opponents currently sitting above the red line in their respective conferences (New York Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake). Yes, the team must play six of its remaining nine games on the road, but for Atlanta, that hasn’t been a high hurdle to jump. In fact, Atlanta is on a record-setting road pace, just one more MLS milestone the team will be looking to redefine this season.

Where does Nagbe fit in?

Tata Martino has an interesting dilemma upon Darlington Nagbe’s eventual return to fitness. Since departing the squad due to injury, Atlanta has added what we now now is a vital piece to the squad in Eric Remedi—a player that occupies the same position as Nagbe despite their contrasting styles. What is the optimal route forward? Would Martino dare pull Jeff Larentowicz from the lineup in order to squeeze both Remedi and Nagbe into midfield alongside each other? Perhaps next year, but not now, especially since Remedi’s playing relationship with Nagbe will start from scratch, opposed to his other teammates with whom he’s been training every day for a month.

It sounds weird to say out loud, but it seems like Nagbe may be best-utilized coming off the bench in the playoffs. The Remedi-Larentowicz combo in central midfield is without doubt the sturdiest possible pairing that will offer the most protection to Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez on the back line. That said, I’d imagine Martino will attempt to use Nagbe as much as possible—even starting him from time to time—in the regular season in order to boost his fitness and match sharpness before the postseason.

We’re in the stretch run. Every game matters now.

Things are setting up nicely for Atlanta, thanks in large part to the important three points that gives them a foothold at the top of the standings. With the number of remaining matches now in single-digits, it’s a reminder of just how important every game is in relation to Atlanta’s goals for the season to win silverware and qualify for CONCACAF Champions League. Martino spoke after the match about how important it is to capitalize on all the opportunities that come to the team from now until the end of the season. Sunday’s match, for example, represented a key opportunity for Atlanta to pick up points after the New York clubs each dropped the ball over the weekend.

“It’s an occasion that we haven’t always been able to take advantage of in the past few weeks,” Martino said candidly after the match. “It was important for us and I have the feeling that as we get closer to the end of the season that all of these results are going to be very important to separate us. Not only was it a great result in that Josef (Martinez) was able to tie the record, but I think with the win today we now have one more win than we had last season with nine games still to play. Those are goals that you go setting and I think it’s good that now we’re completing some of our goals.”