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5 Thoughts: Atlanta United’s long road trip starts with three points

A predictable win, but with some caveats

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As bad as Orlando City is, this Orlando City team was bad

Orlando City had to dig deep into its fairly shallow roster to even field a team Friday evening. They were without the suspended Cristian Higuita, the injured Sacha Kljestan and the injured and suspended Yoshimar Yotun. In the defensive midfield they started Carlos Ascues, who was fresh off the plane from Peru just in midweek. The back four had a combined 24 starts in 24 games this season before last night, and included a guy who insists on going by PC (his real name is Victor Giro, so that’s understandable). And let’s not forget that they have the greasy-fingered Joe Bendik in goal.

This was not a team that was going to make Atlanta United work very hard, barring catastrophic mistakes. Ironically, it was one of those jury-rigged back four, Scott Sutter, who made the game moderately interesting. Orlando capitalized on a poor Julian Gressel clearance and weak coverage from Jeff Larentowicz to tie it up shortly before half time. Atlanta defensive mistakes were the only way that Orlando was going to be able to score. We saw that in Dallas and at home against Toronto. This time, though, it was more a case of the opposition lulling Atlanta to sleep.

Bunkering is a good strategy against Atlanta

Or not. Well, it is if you are visiting Mercedes-Benz Stadium and are a good team. When you are a weak team and playing at home, it reeks of desperation. It seems that Orlando’s only objective for the game was to prevent Josef Martinez from getting the record, but were perfectly willing to let anyone else score. However, if your defense is weak and your midfield gutted, it’s not much of a plan. The Five Stripes played in so much space it looked as if they were playing against 9 or 10 men, and were pretty much able to attack at will. Atlanta racked up 19 shots in the game, 10 of which were on target. Of Atlanta’s total 557 passes, 364 (65%) were in the attacking half and 185 (33%) in the attacking third.

In the end, they succeeded in their objective only insofar as they didn’t let Josef score in front of their much vaunted Wall. No problem, he scored in front of the visiting fans instead. But not until he had done this first:

Does this mean Atlanta has solved the bunkering problem? Given the quality of the opponent, that’s hard to say.

Josef Martinez is king and Julian Gressel is his prince

With that soon-to-be-legendary goal, Josef set 2 MLS records and tied a third. He now has sole ownership of the single-season scoring record and improved his own road scoring streak record to 10 games, and tied Diego Valeri’s all-game scoring streak of 9 games.

Josef is making a mockery of statistics in this league, and he still has 8 games to go. We are very, very lucky to have him.

But Josef has to be loving Julian. Including last night, Gressel has provided the direct assist on 7 of his 28 goals. They are the MLS leaders in that combo (Tito Villalba has assisted Josef 5 times and is tied for second). That connection has become a key part of the Atlanta offensive machine.

Road points are huge, and it doesn’t matter how you get them

Earning points away from home is big in any league, but nowhere more so than in MLS where the travel distances are so long, and the travel rules so restrictive. It is axiomatic in MLS that home teams have a massive advantage.

Thus, a four-game road trip this late in the season could spell trouble. Atlanta has the fortune however of facing relatively weak teams in this trip. Admittedly, DC United next week are looking much stronger than they did earlier this season (partly because they now have Wayne Rooney and partly because they were stuck playing on the road much of the first half of the season), but after them are the Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes. So the trip will include 3 of the 4 weakest teams in the league. We’ll take that any day.

The second positive factor is that Atlanta is historically excellent on the road. The team’s current road record is 8-2-2 for PPG of 2.16, easily the best in the league. It’s also better than the team’s home PPG of 2.00, which is also very good. In the post-shootout era, no MLS team has ever had a road PPG better than 2.00 (the 2010 Seattle Sounders went 6-6-3). Atlanta has 5 road games left and needs 9 points from them to beat that record.

Not only is being good on the road a major advantage in the regular season, it’s gigantic in the playoffs. With the home-and-away format through most of the post-season, road strength is a major bonus. In Atlanta's case, it may even nullify the loss of home field advantage in the second leg if that ends up being the case.

The final stretch is no time to relax

At times last night, Atlanta looked tired and at others almost disinterested. The result was more or less a foregone conclusion given the gulf in quality between the two teams. As much as the Five Stripes controlled the game, execution was sloppy (notably on the Orlando goal). As the season draws to a close, overconfidence and poor play need to be eliminated. As much as Atlanta faces weaker teams through much of the remaining 8 games, the race is tight and there is still little room for error. Moreover, the current road trip includes some substantial distances, a short break, high altitude and is wrapped around an international break, which means even more travel. Now is the time to stay sharp and focused.