OK, admit it: you were worried. Ezequiel Barco has been Atlanta United’s break-out player this season and was shipped off to Poland for the U-20 World Cup right after his impressive performance against Sporting KC. Pity Martinez has not yet lived up to his billing and price tag. What was the team going to do without him?
Well, pretty much exactly what they have been doing the last few games (the unfortunate loss to FC Dallas notwithstanding). That is, dominate and win.
It took five attempts, including a beatdown at the end of last season to lose the Supporters’ Shield, but finally the 99 Red Stripes got the W against the villains from the north (and no, I’m not going to make any more Game of Thrones references). And a very solid performance it was, too.
The primary game plan was fiendish. Clearly, the strategy was for Tito Villalba to get a buzz cut and throw Toronto FC into total confusion by making them think there were two Franco Escobars on the field. It was also a risky move – for Tito, that is – but he probably figured he plays far enough away from Brad Guzan to limit that risk.
The United we saw Wednesday evening was a return to the brash, high-speed, arrogant team of 2018, but tempered by the more controlled style Frank DeBoer has imposed. It was fun to watch, probably the most fun game so far this season. Despite ceding 53.6% of the possession to the visitors, Atlanta looked in complete control of the game from whistle to whistle.
Not that TFC were going to do anything useful with that possession: they finished the game with just 8 shots, and none on target. Atlanta, by contrast, kept up their high volume shooting, with 19 total and 5 on target (and several of the misses were veeery close).
Even when the team were playing the possession game, it looked much more purposeful. Moreover, they did not start out the game with it but reverted to it from time to time after they had gained the lead. It was, in effect, a cocky demonstration of keep-away, daring TFC to try to take the ball away. Take a look at this little stretch of the game:
This covers about 90 seconds of play starting at the 57’ mark, ending with a through ball from Eric Remedi that Julian Gressel just fails to get to. During this stretch Toronto touched the ball just twice: they took the ball away more or less in their own right corner and immediately gave it right back. This includes 24 passes by Atlanta, and involved every player except Brad Guzan and Josef Martinez. Further, it covered a good chunk of the field and was by no means squeezed into the central third.
Backing that up, here’s the heatmap:
Note the near absence of red on the Atlanta side. Also note the lack of penetration by Toronto, and the darkest red spot is right over their own goal. Good stuff.
All in all, it seems that manager and players have come to a meeting of the minds. Things are looking up.
And at the perfect time too. Atlanta is now 2 games into the brutal stretch of 5 in 15 days (add the Real Salt Lake game and it’s 6 in 21. And the Minnesota United game makes it 7 in 25). The team now cases Orlando City, the Vancouver Whitecaps, the New York Red Bulls and RSL before facing a team above the playoff line (wait...Minnesota is above the playoff line?!?). Orlando dropped below the line thanks to Atlanta’s midweek win, and also lost their last game 2-0 to...Toronto FC.
Atlanta, meanwhile has won 4 of their last 5, and 3 straight. That puts them even with the Houston Dynamo on the first stat and with the Portland Timbers on the second. Officially the hottest team in MLS? Maybe so.
Anyway, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
With his excellent start in place of Barco and game-winning goal, Tito Villalba gets the Man of the Match Award. Special Mentions go to Josef Martinez, who is now officially Mr. Assist, and to Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez, who put in his best game of the season.
GK: Brad Guzan – 7. Four clean sheets in five games, and no goals allowed in the last 276 minutes. Of course, TFC helped him out by having no shots on goal, despite him giving them a golden opportunity with a poor clearance.
LB: Brek Shea – 5. Unlike our inimitable Parker Cleveland, I am not on the Brek Shea train. Another poor performance that could have resulted in disaster a time or two. 2 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 clearance. Pulled after 70 minutes.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 8. Easily LGP’s best game this season, and the early chase and block in the 5th minute was a huge game-changer. 2 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 clearance and 1 block. He even got an off-target shot in.
CB: Miles Robinson – 7. Yet another solid outing for Miles, if not a spectacular one. 1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 3 clearances. No shots, but he was an obvious threat on set pieces at the other end.
RB: Franco Escobar – 7.5. Just 4 tackles defensively, and loses a half point for the yellow card on a rather sily tactical foul (silly in that there was evidently no tactical threat from TFC). Also had a shot off frame.
LM: Darlington Nagbe – 8. 61 passes and 95.1% accuracy. Pity Martinez topped that by a single pass, but he was nowhere near as on target. Also kept the ball way from the Toronto midfielders literally running circles around them at times.
CM: Pity Martinez – 8. Getting closer and closer to the player we thought we’d see from the get go. In the DSS Slack channel just as Pity was preparing to take his free kick in the 77th minute the question was asked if he deserved a goal. If he didn’t before striking the crossbar, he certainly did afterwards. 3 shots in the game, all long range and 1 on target. But his influence on the game was clear.
RM: Eric Remedi– 8. Eric was tasked with keeping TFC’s replacement for Sebastian Giovinco - Alejandro Pozuelo - on a tight leash. Pozuelo ended up with 90 shots in the game. Mission accomplished.
LAM: Tito Villalba – 9. The goal was Tito’s only shot on target (2 more were off-target and 1 was blocked), but he was a terror to Toronto’s back line all night and looked to be thoroughly enjoying himself in the process. And let’s not forget he was denied a second goal by a close-ish offside cal. Obviously warming up for his lion tamer act this Sunday. Rested in the 85th minute.
RAM: Julian Gressel – 8. Continued his ongoing partnership with Josef Martinez to seal the victory. Racked up 4 shots in the game, 2 on target. Yet another good game. Exited after 85 minutes.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 8. If the 2 offside calls had not been made, Josef would now have as many assists as goals (4) on the season. The assist on the first goal was a brilliant piece of individual play. He also had 5 shots in the game but only 1 on target.
SUB: Michael Parkhurst – 7. Entered in the 70th minute to shore up the defense. MP for BS. ’Nuff said. 1 interception and 3 clearances in 20 minutes.
SUB: Jeff Larentowicz – 7. Came on for clean-up duty with 5 minutes left. Not exactly taxed in the assignment.
SUB: Dion Pereira – 7. Came on with Jeff in a blatant move to park the bus, but spent almost the entire time at the other end. Cruelly denied a goal with a razor-thin offside call.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 8. Nicely done. But: never bet against the boss, especially when his name is Darren Eales.
FORGIVENESS: 0. Yeah, it’s overrated. Especially when the potential recipient is Michael Bradley. Jozy Altidore of course chickened out.