For 10 minutes and 14 seconds, all was right with the world. Destiny was beckoning. Shades were being worn. Indoors. At night. Atlanta fans were checking their phones to make sure they had the Ticketmaster app downloaded.
A second later, Quentin Westberg saved Josef Martinez’ penalty kick. And everything changed.
Well, actually, not everything. Atlanta United continued to absolutely dominate the game. In every way but the one that counts. Fate is a cruel mistress.
In the end, the unthinkable happened. Not Atlanta losing, that is, I mean yet another Seattle-Toronto MLS Cup match. Man, is that going to be intolerable. But such is life, I guess.
The game raises quite a few questions.
First, Frank de Boer pulled yet another new formation out of the dustier pages of the coaching manual. He went with the relatively little used 4-4-1-1. That is, obviously, a variant of the boring old 4-4-2, withdrawing one of the two forwards into a blended striker/trequartista role. The player tasked with that responsibility was Pity Martinez, and he played it rather brilliantly. Was this the right tactical choice? Well, out of the gate it sure seemed that way, and in light of the general flow of the game there’s little to suggest it wasn’t the right choice. As for how Pity played, he ended the game with no shots, but look at his passing map:
All but 7 of his 47 passes were inside the attacking half, and a good chunk in the attacking third. And check how many deliveries he made into the penalty area. But also check how many of those are red.
Which leads to the second question: should Josef have played? FdB admitted after the game that allowing him to play carrying an injury was a risk, but good luck keeping him out of a game for anything less than life-threatening illness. However, asking Pity to play as he did but hamstringing him with a less than 100% target was not…optimal.
And so the third question: should Josef have ceded the PK to Pity? Had I known he was hobbled before the kick, I would have said absolutely, and FdB should have issued instructions pre-game to that effect. In this case, it seems Josef was being uncharacteristically selfish. Given Pity’s own unselfishness in giving the Julian Gressel the open net goal just minutes earlier, that’s not a good look.
A fourth question: was just one substitution the right choice? Well, given that the 47-games-now-and-I’m glad-my-running-joke-passive-aggressive-jersey-protest-is-finally-over Stripes were staring at extra time, probably so. With that extra sub after full time, and Toronto having used all its regular subs early (by the 68th minute), probably a good decision. Besides, who was available for an attacking boost? On the bench were Mikey Ambrose (clearly not), Justin Meram (maybe, but he hasn’t exactly shone in the post-season), Emerson Hyndman (perhaps, but he’s not overly dynamic), Eric Remedi (also an obvious no) and Mo Adams (unlikely).
With a Josef Martinez at full fitness, this game is a blowout. But he wasn’t. and two moments of utter brilliance by Toronto brought Atlanta’s season to a crashing end. Atlanta’s chase to become just the fourth repeat MLS champion is done. Still, two trophies and a 2020 CONCACAF Champions League slot booked make for a year not to be sniffed at.
Also, Atlanta is just the third MLS expansion team to make the playoffs in each of its first three seasons. The others were the Chicago Fire in 1998-2000 when the league had just 12 teams, with 6 making the playoffs, and Houston Dynamo in 2006-08, but Houston was really a relocation not an expansion. LAFC will probably join that list next year, but it’s still an exclusive club.
And now we have a much longer break before the next competitive game. Specifically, Atlanta were off for a total of just 75 days last year between MLS Cup and the first CCL game. This year the break will be from 111-113 days depending on CCL scheduling (first round is February 18-20). To interrupt the interminable boredom, there are the usual off-season shenanigans to deal with. Contract negotiations, roster moves, another expansion draft, the always enthralling MLS SuperDraft, and all the rest of it. However will we survive?
Until then, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is Pity Martinez who did everything humanly possible to win the game. Although the team played, on the whole, fairly well, no one else really stood out, so no Special Mentions this time.
GK: Brad Guzan – 6. Just 2 saves in the game, neither of which were remarkable. He came very close to pawing Nicolas Benezet’s shot despite being unsighted in the play, but had no chance against Nick DeLeon.
LB: Florentin Pogba – 6. 1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 1 clearance and 2 recoveries. As with the rest of the back line, he wasn’t under much pressure most of the game. Going forward, he was 80.8% accurate on 56 passes.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 6. Defensively, just 1 clearance and 7 recoveries, but he should have been covering the middle better to block DeLeon. 1 of his 3 attempts on goal was on target though.
CB: Michael Parkhurst – 7. 1 tackle, 1 interception, 1 clearance and 6 recoveries. A slight surprise choice for the lineup perhaps, given his injury, but he didn’t look hampered. Left after 81 minutes to end a long career. Hey, he went out a champion.
RB: Franco Escobar – 7. 3 tackles and 3 recoveries, and the recoveries were all in the attacking half. He was 95.2% on 63 passes. He pushed forward hard, and was definitely still Playoff Franco.
LLW: Ezequiel Barco – 7. Playing Zeke out on the wing was a curious choice considering how well he has played lately going vertical, but it seemed to work. An impressive 95.5% completion rate on 44 passes, and he set up Pity for the assist beautifully.
LM: Jeff Larentowicz – 7. Also very solid passing: of his 48 passes, 93.8% connected. He had 1 shot, but off frame. However, he’s 36 and has a total of 446 MLS appearances under his belt. How much longer will his career last?
RM: Darlington Nagbe – 7. A fairly typical game for Darlington, who was in command of the midfield as usual. Passing was slightly below his par though at 88.6% accuracy on 70 passes, and he had 2 shots off target.
RW: Julian Gressel – 7. Obviously he had the easy tap in for the goal, and he racked 5 shots in the game to lead all players, and 2 were on target. Also he went 86.3% on 51 passes, but with just 5 making it into the box. Now get that contract settled.
AM: Pity Martinez – 8. You’ve seen his passing above. Just a 72.3% completion rate, including the assist, but man was he pumping it into the box.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 5. His worst game ever for Atlanta? Maybe. We have a long off-season to discuss it.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 5. He completed just 3 of 7 passes in 9 official minutes, and none of them were anywhere near goal. He did attempt a shot though, but off frame.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 7. Right formation, wrong lineup. Now let’s see what he can do with a full off-season to work with.
PLAYOFF HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE – 0. Home teams are 8-4 so far. Not really as useful as MLS had thought, was it?