What a difference a week makes. Road games in CONCACAF are Rod Serling’s idea of sports entertainment. Or, more likely, Jordan Peele’s. You step off a plane in Central America into that fifth dimension so twisted from reality that any assumption of normality should be jettisoned.
That is the only rational explanation I can come up with for what happened in Costa Rica, because last night’s game was precisely what we all expected. Not that Atlanta United had entirely escaped the Twilight Zone; Kennesaw sits on its borders, I am told, and Oshane Nation was obviously applying some bizarre alternate rules of soccer.
All oddities aside, the Stripes-subject-to-a-recount unleashed a thorough beatdown on an opponent they should never have had any trouble with to begin with. If anything, the 4-0 scoreline was, if not merciful, then at least short of aggravated assault. Just 8’53” into the game the required 2-0 had been achieved and Atlanta could have simply parked the bus and cruised the rest of the way. That bus could have been parked on the half-way line for all the attack Herediano generated. But backing off has never really been this team’s style and they went on to hammer poor Daniel Cambronero’s goal with 18 shots (Herediano managed just 7, with 3 on target). The final score could have been far worse.
Frank de Boer achieved this by tweaking his lineup just a tad. He flipped Michael Parkhurst and Miles Robinson, and started Brek Shea over the injured George Bello and allowed Darlington Nagbe to continue to build on what he had done in the second half last week. Parkhurst moving back to a central defending role was key. I mentioned after last week’s debacle that he looked uncomfortable at right back. Freeing him to manage defensive responsibilities clearly worked, and allowing Robinson to move on the wing also worked, although he never attempted a pass farther forward than the far end of the center circle.
The team clearly benefitted from an extra week of practice together and were much more in tune with each other, and with Frank de Boer’s system. Chalk last week up to an final preseason scrimmage. That system relies heavily on possession, and Atlanta had a massive 60.9% last night. Until the 70th minute it was 67.0%. Not only that, but it was also fluid and effective possession. Take a look at the sequence that led up to Josef Martinez’ second goal:
It starts with Miles Robinson’s interception (blue triangle) which is recovered by Julian Gressel (yellow triangle). Gressel then passes to Nagbe and it flows from there. The sequence lasts 37 seconds with 15 distinct touches on the ball and, here’s the real kicker: it involves all ten Atlanta field players. That’s serious team play and flawless execution. Exactly what the new coach is asking them to do.
So, just two games into his Atlanta tenure, de Boer has equaled his win total with his previous employer, and is only 4 wins short of his win total with the employer before that. On March 11th he will exceed his tenure at Crystal Palace (77 days), and 8 days after that he will pass his tenure at Inter Milan (85 days).
Given Thursday’s result, I do not see this being a problem. In fact, this team could very well steamroll its way through MLS this season.
Next up is D.C. United, and directly after that the team heads south again, this time to Monterrey, Mexico to face a Rayados team widely considered the CCL favorite. However, they struggled against Alianza of El Salvador beating them by a less than impressive 1-0 aggregate score, and that gal coming in the 86th minute of the second leg on a penalty kick (another Monterrey PK was saved earlier in the game). The Rayados also have two key Liga MX games slotted around the CCL tie: Chivas away this weekend (and therefore at altitude) and Tigres at home next weekend. Tigres currently lead the Clausura (they topped the Apertura standings, but blew out in the first round of the Liguilla playoffs), with Monterrey one point behind. Chivas trail them by 4 points in 4th place.
With expectations riding high, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match was a tough call, as it often is with this team. I’m awarding the honor to Ezequiel Barco for his high octane coach-approved two-assist performance. Special Mentions go to Josef Martinez and Miles Robinson for their outstanding efforts.
GK: Brad Guzan – 8. 3 saves in the game for Brad, including a fingertip beauty late to preserve the clean sheet. Amazing what happens when your back line doesn’t hang you out to dry.
LB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 7.5. LGP shook off his annual first game yips, more or less, and put in a generally solid performance. Rather lucky not to see a second yellow for a heft barge in the back, but also scored his annual goal for Atlanta.
CB: Michael Parkhurst – 7. As noted, back in his comfort zone, Parky performed far more strongly this time out.
RB: Miles Robinson – 8. Two straight good games for the former #2 draft pick, who now has 2 starts for the season and is one shy of his previous total in starts in 2 years of MLS play. Will he challenge Franco Escobar for the permanent starting role once Franco is healthy?
LWB: Brek Shea – 8. Despite FdB’s odd comments about why he didn’t start down in Costa Rica (too tall for turf? That could be a problem at the Benz), and an injury to George Bello making the choice a necessity, Shea justified his start. Overall strong, and a great layoff for the assist.
LHM: Darlington Nagbe – 7. Nagbe was a standout in Heredia, but was relatively weak in Kennesaw. His passing wasn’t anywhere near as crisp. However, relatively weak on a team that played extremely well is still pretty good.
RHM: Eric Remedi – 8. A fairly quiet game overall, although he got fouled 3 times. But that’s what you want from the holding mid. Pulled after 88 minutes for cleanup duty.
LWB: Julian Gressel – 8. The Martinez-Gressel Golden Boot race is on. 2 goals each so far. Julian is making a claim on the title of Best MLS Draft Pick ever, and his agent must be drooling over the expiration of his rookie contract.
LM: Pity Martinez – 7.5. Picked up a very silly yellow card, but otherwise continued to show why Atlanta paid so much for him. He had 4 shots, all off target. As in Costa Rica, a couple of them hit defenders. Hard. Very hard. At some point we will see one of them in the net with a ball lodged in his stomach. Left in the 70th minute.
RM: Ezequiel Barco – 9. Talking of expensive players, Barco is beginning to justify his price tag. 2 assists and 3 shots, 2 on goal. Continues to get fouled, at the rate of 3 a game.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 9. Josef being Josef. Which is to say, taking huge early opportunities. And scoring, let’s not forget scoring. Extra credit for the Miggy-less fusion celebration. Exited in the 81st minute.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 8. Replaced Pity Martinez in a straight swap, and managed 2 shots in 20 official minutes, 1 on target. Remains probably the biggest off-the-bench threat in MLS.
SUB: Romario Williams – 7. Came on for Josef after 81 minutes. Didn’t really have much to do in a game that was already well in hand.
SUB: Jeff Larentowicz – 7. A late sub for short duty to help preserve the clean sheet. Again, was not exactly busy.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 8. Made the needed adjustments after the mess in Costa Rica. Also looked like he was really enjoying himself.
THE OUTER LIMITS: – 10. Because it deserves a mention as well. But don’t you dare bring up Black Mirror.