Nine points in eight days. Feels like September 2017 all over again, doesn’t it?
Form is everything, especially late in the season, and the Five Stripes are hitting their stride. They have won 5 of their last 6, easily the best current form in MLS, and have taken 23 of their last 30 points. Only the Seattle Sounders beat that with 24, and they have lost their last two games.
That being said, Real Salt Lake have not been shabby of late, going 3-1-2 over the 6 games leading into Saturday evening. With Atlanta coming off an exhausting and desperate midweek game on the West Coast, they must have fancied their chances of snatching at least 1 much-needed point.
’Twas not to be. Instead, they were utterly dominated for 90 minutes by a clearly superior side. Despite having the lion’s share of possession at 53.8%, they were completely unable to penetrate a rock-solid defense. Well, that’s not quite true; they managed to rack up a total of 7 offside calls, all but one of which were outside the penalty area. Take a look at the RSL passing chart:
RSL managed only 3 successful passes into the 18 all game, and only 1 of those (in the 4th minute) resulted in a shot, which was off target. Atlanta, by comparison, had 10 passes in the box.
The heatmap tells a similar story:
Salt Lake were basically held at bay all game.
Take into account the fact that Atlanta started George Bello at left back, and the entire defense had a less than stellar outing just 3 days earlier, that degree of resistance is impressive.
Considering what went on at the other end, the final result could have been far worse, too. Ben Baer of MLSsoccer.com lists Atlanta’s xG for the game at a mere 1.58, but there were chances galore. Nick Rimando had to make 6 saves, and the team logged 19 clearances. Even Bello got a shot in.
So now United head on back out of town to New Jersey, where they will not face Bradley Wright-Phillips. Oh the shame. Conversely, no Atlanta player picked up a 5th yellow or a red, so there are no suspensions for the coming game. Unfortunately, the New York Red Bulls also won this weekend, thanks to Toronto FC continuing to demonstrate that they were a one-hit wonder. Nevertheless, Atlanta’s CCL magic number is down to 4, which can be achieved with a win Sunday. A tie cuts it to just 1. The Supporters’ Shield magic number is 9, which would drop to 3 with a win, and to 6 with a tie. And let’s not forget the points record, which is just 7 away.
Yes, it was a good week. Let’s round it off with the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match was a tough choice. Pretty much everyone played well. In the end, Julian Gressel’s goal and assist get him the nod. Special Mentions go to Miguel Almiron and Darlington Nagbe for doing typical Miggyish and Nagbesque things, as well as to George Bello, who gave us reason to believe.
GK: Brad Guzan – 7. 3 saves on the evening, but only one of them really challenged him. Spent a large chunk of the game hanging around near the center circle. Receives a bonus point for getting up into Damir Kreilach’s face.
LB: George Bello – 8. Since he’s still school age maybe an A+ instead? Get this: Bello is 23 years younger than the oldest player in the game, Nick Rimando, who had already been playing professionally for two years when Bello was born. Not that you would have noticed. He was excellent offensively all game, even getting in a shot and defensively he was solid as well: 5 tackles, 1 interception, 1 clearance and 1 block. Exited to roars of appreciation after 73 minutes.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 7. A much improved performance over Wednesday. LGP was literally all over the field and generally looked to be having a blast. Not really tested defensively very much. Left in the 88th minute for a completely unnecessary defensive change.
CB: Jeff Larentowicz – 7. Took over for the resting Michael Parkhurst at centerback and as captain. Like LGP, hardly tested at all, with only 2 clearances and 2 blocks, but his defensive savvy was most on display in managing the incredibly effective offside trap.
RB: Franco Escobar – 7. Was this the same guy as Wednesday? Of the entire team, Franco probably had the best turnaround. He was frankly dire against San Jose but very strong on Saturday. 2 tackles, 3 interceptions and 2 clearances. He also had 95% passing accuracy.
LM: Eric Remedi – 7. Spent some time (along with LGP) helping out George Bello with directions and positional hints. He was able to do that because RSL completely failed to challenge him in midfield. 4 tackles, 2 interceptions and 1 block.
CM: Darlington Nagbe – 8. Just wow. He was virtually unstoppable all night and spent his time owning all comers. Had a miserably low (by his lofty standards) 91.7% passing accuracy but was the ultimate finder and creator of space.
RM: Julian Gressel – 9. Why do teams keep ignoring him? I absolutely do not understand it. OK, you have to keep eyes on Miggy, Josef and Tito. I get that. but that’s only 3 horsemen. There is a fourth after all. In addition to his golazo and assist, he led the team in touches (65) and passes (51, tied with LGP).
FWD: Miguel Almiron – 8. 6 shots, from all over the place. And let’s not forget the brilliant across-the-box assist to Julian.Otherwise, all over the place and leaving opponents in the
dirt rubber, as usual.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 8. About the only thing that went wrong Saturday was not getting Josef his 50th goal in his 50th MLS game. But Josef seems quote happy to play behind Miggy when needed and was a terror to the RSL back line anyway.
FWD: Tito Villalba – 8. So: was it a goal or was it an own goal? Probably a goal, although some might disagree. However, it wasn’t his best chance in the game. He could have had at least one more. Taken out in the 81st minute.
SUB: Jose Hernandez – 7. Atlanta’s forgotten man. These were his first 17 minutes of play all season in MLS, replacing Bello. Got in a tackle, but was otherwise unchallenged in a game that effectively over already.
SUB: Ezequiel Barco – N/R. Came in for Tito with 9 minutes left. It’s rare that I give such a rating to a sub this early, but what exactly was he asked to do? Not much.
SUB: SUB: Miles Robinson – N/R. Replaced LGP late, for no apparent reason.
COACH: Tata Martino – 8. Tata rotating the squad? Wonders will never cease. Also this time the 4-3-3 worked beautifully, even if it was more of a 3-4-3.
ROOF OPERATORS: 5. OK, you get credit for listening to the complaints, but next time check the weather forecast first, please.