Soccer is truly a fascinating sport. It is one in which everything changes and yet remarkably stays the same. The laws of the game are lightly tinkered with but the play bends and molds itself to new ideas and different ways of exploiting the zones of uncertainty that so often determine the result of games.
Atlanta United may be looking toward the future, but Wednesday night was all about the past as the Five Stripes won yet another dominant game. It was a match that had everything - a ton of shots for Atlanta, the visitors trying to open the game up but largely failing and paying the price for it, beautiful and sensual passing from Pity Martinez, Josef Martinez smiling, an attempted shot that turned into interpretative dance, an all together blissful experience for Atlanta United fans. It was like 2018 all over again.
It also had Toronto getting things very wrong in terms of personnel and tactics. Their 4-4-2 was not compact and well organized, nor was it dangerous on the counter, nor was it successful when it needed to turn possession into shots on goal. Greg Vanney elected to rotate his players, who must be exhausted after playing the fewest games in MLS so far this year, and without Marky Delgado, Jonathan Osorio, and Justin Morrow starting the defense was once again leaky and the attack flat. The Five Stripes beat another team they hadn’t defeated before and Toronto may have been exposed as pretenders after a hot start.
Orlando City - Purple pain
Meet the team that embodies everything changing and staying the same. Orlando City has tried everything. They hired Adrian Heath to manage a bunch of players who couldn’t play defense, got one or two who could score goals sometimes when they were healthy, opened a fancy new stadium, but never made the leap from the lower division to MLS (Heath is now managing Minnesota United where he was hired to manage a bunch of players who couldn’t play defense, got one or two who could score goals sometimes when they are healthy, opened a fancy new stadium, but never made the leap from the lower division to MLS - different and the same).
Since firing him the team hired a bunch of different managers and fired them after rebuilding the roster every season. They also brought in Sacha Kljestan. It turns out that unless he has one of the best strikers in the history of the league to pass the ball to, his playmaking abilities aren’t that great. The team also features Dom Dwyer, a player they hoped would re-capture the magic that he had the best striker in the second division, something that he hasn’t lived up to in his second stint in Orlando.
So what should we expect out of Orlando in this game? Well, they have Nani now who challenges the notion that MLS is no longer a retirement league. On his day, the winger is dangerous and can score and create goals still - he has five on the year with four coming against MLS powerhouses Colorado, Vancouver, and Real Salt Lake. Defensively, Orlando has started 10 different players on its backline but they did, sadly, get rid of Joe Bendik so Brian Rowe, Rowe, Rowe your boat is helplessly watching goals sail into his net this season. Tactically, they try to play soccer but are bad at it.
Orlando sit in 9th place after trying something different this year. Rather than giving their fans false hope after winning six games to begin the season, they’re just settling directly into clueless mediocrity until they either accidentally find something that works or fire their coach and bring back Bobby Murphy for a third time. Many people do not know this, but the shape of the lion in Orlando’s crest is a circle and represents history repeating itself in a never ending loop.
No Zeke, no problem and the emergence of Pity
Things do change though - it is the only constant in life. After replacing Tata Martino, the Five Stripes struggled and now look to have re-gained their old magic. One thing that changed was Ezequiel Barco being replaced on the left by Tito Villalba. Rather than have Tito playmake like Zeke, FdB involved him in the attack in his typical way of storming down the left wing and getting chances to send blistering shots toward Alex Bono.
That meant much of the attack and possession went through Darlington Nagbe and it seems like this will be the plan with Barco away. The midfielder is definitely capable of playing that role, but he offers different skills than Barco does and at times held the ball waiting for things to develop rather than try something on his own or quickly work a pass. This isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just different but it might mean that Atlanta is more patient in the buildup rather than direct when trying to break down defenses.
Another thing that was different was Pity Martinez. The last two games his quality has been on full display threading through balls to find the feet of runners and smashing free kicks that look destined to start hitting the back of the net soon. He is obviously not Miguel Almiron. Miguel Almiron was a unicorn, he had the incredible work rate of a tireless central midfielder with the passing vision and finishing of a trequartista. Pity is a different player and Atlanta is playing differently with him. In the enganche role that he more closely resembles, the team isn’t breaking with a speedy playmaker, they’re working possession to try and breakdown teams. With a ramshackle backline, spotty central midfield, and Will Johnson, Pity should be combining with Josef, Tito, and Julian to continue traumatizing Orlando City.
The rivalry that isn’t and the state of MLS
MLS badly wants rivalries - derbies even. It seems like the MLS Soccer dot com marketing plan is about hyping them up so the league can be just like what people watch on NBCSN every weekend morning. They’re hard to come by with teams separated by hundreds of miles, but that distance also exists in terms of quality.
Orlando is geographically in the same region as Atlanta (though Orlando is more America’s bottom than its South), but that’s as close as the organization gets to having any similarity to the Five Stripes. Atlanta is a model organization that has well thought out plans that are executed perfectly. Orlando is less a soccer team and more a case study of how not to run an organization.
Since joining MLS, they have had no success, traded Atlanta United a draft pick that ended up being Julian Gressel for Donny Toia, and feature fans that are hellbent on being a facsimile of an idealized hooligan culture that terrorized the sport for a generation and nobody was sad to see disappear. In truth, Atlanta and Orlando aren’t rivals - Tata and Yamil Asad were right about that - more than one team has to win for a rivalry to exist and Orlando is less a soccer team than a series of ironic “what if” statements hilariously come to life. If Orlando City has a rival, something that it struggles to overcome in order to define its own existence, then it would be itself, not Atlanta United.
Truth and beauty, beauty and truth
Usually in this section I say something like - Atlanta has won four of the last five and needs to win because winning is good and Orlando is trash so this should be easy. I did just say that - so I’ll say this too. Game previews are weird because you can generally pick apart the teams and say what you think might happen, but sports are unpredictable and there’s no way to preview that. Hopefully the random stuff I say here represents that in a way that is true and real and reflects the unknown events that are going to unfold on Sunday and the beauty and chaos that we all get to enjoy every time that Atlanta United steps onto the pitch. If not, know that there will be fear and there will be elation.