I have a theory.
In August, Atlanta United went an impressive 7-1-0 in all competitions, picking up two trophies along the way. In September, by contrast, United were a relatively mediocre 2-2-1. OK, strike that, objectively mediocre. You may wish to ascribe that to fatigue, post-championship let-down, over-scheduling, etc., etc., blah blah blah. Nope, none of that; nonsense, all of it. I have a far better explanation, and one of irrefutable and, dare I say it, unimpeachable logic. Here it is: September was, as it has been every year since 2007, National Bourbon Heritage Month. The 46 Stripes clearly took that very seriously.
See? It makes absolutely perfect sense. Now, so long as no one on the team has a Wine of the Month Club subscription, October should be just fine.
At least this game wasn’t a loss. It was, in fact, the first road game this season that was neither a win nor a loss. It could, and according to Michael Parkhurst, should have been a win. But Jair Marrufo annoyingly (but correctly) ruled two goals offside, Clement Diop in his first MLS game since 10/22/17 became the latest opposing keeper to stand on his head against Atlanta, and several other good chances came crushingly close but not on target.
Those two offside decisions, by the way, were the only times Marrufo really made his presence known. For the first time this season in an Atlanta game, no cards were issued to either team, and for only the third time this season no United player got a card (the other two were 4/27 v. the Colorado Rapids and 7/17 v. the Houston Dynamo). Which likely means the guy playing #5 was a ringer.
Overall, it was a solid if not spectacular outing for Atlanta. Through the first 55 minutes the visitors controlled 59.5% of the possession, and aside from one miraculously saved attempt by Saphir Taider in the 37th minute, the Montreal Impact never really looked threatening.
After that point, which was itself just after Julian Gressel’s goal, Montreal actually dominated possession at 57.7%. It didn’t really feel like that, though, and Atlanta outshot Montreal during that stretch 6-5, with numerous strong chances created on the counter and some furious attacking in stoppage time. The tying goal came during those 35 minutes, of course, but that was largely the result of defensive confusion after Parky’s injury and before he could be subbed out. Otherwise, Atlanta generally gave the impression of being in control.
Part of that was the return of Ezequiel Barco during the final stretch, who looked very good, and very ready to play. Which is good news as the season gets down to the really serious games.
It was, overall, a cagey affair, but that was true of virtually all the MLS games played this past weekend, and certainly in the Eastern Conference. With the schedule deliberately having all games in each conference kick off at the same time (and next Sunday ALL games will kick off at the same time) and there being much to play for, no one was taking any risks. In the 6 Eastern Conference games, just 12 goals were scored, with only the 2-2 Chicago Fire-Toronto FC tie having more than 2 goals.
When the day was finally over, about the only real change in the Eastern Conference was Atlanta and the Philadelphia Union flipping spots again, with the latter falling victim to bad weather in Columbus. The gods are clearly just. The New England Revolution firmed up their #7 spot, and that was it.
And that leaves a lot to be decided next week. Of the 7 playoff spots, only New York City FC at #1 is finalized. Atlanta needs to at least match Philly on points to retain the #2 slot, which means, practically speaking, they have to win (a win against Montreal would have meant a tie would probably seal it, as Atlanta would have had a minimum 5-goal edge in goal differential going into Decision Day). As for the first round opponent, it could be any of the final four playoff teams, who are separated by just 4 points. The simplest option: beat the Revs and they come back to MBS two weeks later. Don’t ask me to explain the other scenarios; there are 162 of them.
On then, to the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is Julian Gressel, who made the most of a game off. Special Mentions go to Pity Martinez, who was good all evening, and to Ezequiel Barco and Tito Villalba for strong performances off the bench.
GK: Brad Guzan – 7. 3 saves in the game, and I can’t decide if his kick save against Taider was brilliant or just plain lucky. But with the goal he now cannot equal Tony Meola’s clean sheet record; at best he’ll be 1 short.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 6. No card, and so he’s eligible next week, but this was an indifferent performance by LGP. Allowing Orji Okwonko to get behind him resulted in the Impact goal. 3 tackles, 1 interception, 3 clearances and 6 recoveries.
CB: Michael Parkhurst – 7. 2 tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 clearances and 7 recoveries in his first action since July 17th. And with the injury, it could be the last game of his career. Taken out after 82 minutes, but probably should have been pulled a couple of minutes faster.
CB: Miles Robinson – 7. 4 tackles, 6 clearances, 1 block and 4 recoveries. Decent numbers in what seemed like a fairly quiet defensive game by Miles’ standards. However, he did get forward far more than usual, a feature of him playing on the left rather than in the center.
LWB: Justin Meram – 6. Went the full 90 in this one. But just 48 passes for 72.9% accuracy, with only 3 into the box. His offside to deny Tito’s goal was not really his fault though; he could not have known it, and he had no choice but to play the ball in that position.
LM: Jeff Larentowicz – 7. 83.7% completion on 43 passes, all in the midfield, and he looked dominant doing it.
RM: Darlington Nagbe – 7. Just 56 passes and 87.5% accuracy, but his play much more advanced up the field than normal. And would it be an Atlanta game without Darlington skying a shot?
RWB: Julian Gressel – 8. Nifty combination work with Pity Martinez and Emerson Hyndman for the goal, and solid play out wide. 74% accuracy on 50 passes.
LAM: Emerson Hyndman – 7. 1 shot on goal, and 80% completion on 35 passes. Not sterling numbers, but that backheel assist gets bonus points.
RAM: Pity Martinez – 8. As noted above, Pity was strong in his 76 minutes. 2 shots, both off target but one at least was achingly close. 71.1% of his 38 passes connected, and he got 4 balls into the 18.
FWD: Brandon Vazquez – 6. This was a tough one. 4 shots, 2 on goal. That’s not bad at all, but for a big guy Brandon is not as threatening as he needs to be, nor is he great with his back to goal.
SUB: Ezequiel Barco – 8. Just his 14th MLS game this season, and his first in over a month. But he has come back at the right time. In 27 official minutes he hit the crossbar and took a ferocious free kick forcing a great save, and of his 12 passes, 3 were into the box.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 7. Cruelly denied a game-winning goal, and had one other shot on target in 14 minutes. He looked sharper and faster than he has in a while.
SUB: Florentin Pogba – 7. Came on for the ailing Parky and really didn’t have much to do. Just 1 tackle and 1 recovery.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 7. Had the right game plan again, and with some luck will have the right personnel to execute it from here on out.
UNANIMITY – 10. Back to National Bourbon Heritage Month. It was approved in the US Senate by unanimous consent. Shocker: the one time politicians found something they could all agree on and it was drinking.