If Josef Martinez had been fully fit, this one would have been a rout. That’s not debatable. As it was, the game was a very satisfying win. Better yet, the team looks to be gelling at last. With just 9 games left in the regular season, that is a very good sign.
Sunday afternoon’s win took the 10-lined-up-neatly-in-a-row Stripes to an all-time record against New York City FC to 4-1-2, the only loss being the first ever meeting all the way back on May 7th, 2017 in the Bronx, when Atlanta United were utterly thrown out of their game plan by having to play 5v5. Even that mastery was short-lived: just 3 weeks later Atlanta reversed the 3-1 decision at home. Since then, United have been more or less in control.
This most recent game they were clearly more in control, right out of the gate. In the first ten minutes, Atlanta had 73.9% possession and created numerous chances. Most noticeably, Julian Gressel was left to play on the right wing utterly uncontested. Consider this:
That’s just the first five minutes of the game. Three big chances launched into the penalty area (yellow lines are key passes). Had Josef Martinez been fully functional, NYCFC would have been in a deep, deep hole and Carlos Vela would be looking up at him in the Golden Boot race. It took me a while to figure out why Julian was so alone. And then I remembered that the Pigeons don’t know how wide a soccer field is supposed to be and it all made sense.
Indeed, had it not been for a pretty stout game from Sean Johnson, who racked up 7 saves, it could have been an utter thrashing. And let’s not forget the Miles Robinson goal that was called off by VAR for a very soft foul and the clear late PK that was not given. By the final whistle, Atlanta had generated 18 shots, 15 of them inside the box, and 9 on target. 33.7% of the total passes were in the attacking third, and 34% of the game was played in that same third.
This was the first time we had really seen the melding of Frank de Boer’s European discipline and the players’ South American brashness. We have seen the team remain organized several times, but this game took that to extremes:
Atlanta on the left. That 3-4-3 belongs on a training room chalkboard. NYCFC were theoretically in a 5-3-2, not that you can tell.
NYCFC had just 2 good chances all day, 1 of which they converted late to make the game a bit more interesting down the final stretch. But we have seen Atlanta defend narrow leads all year and this was no exception.
Frank de Boer is on record as saying his system would take 6 months to become fully operational. United’s first competitive game this year, against Herediano in CCL, was 5 months and 21 days earlier. It looks like FdB is 10 days ahead of schedule. If this were a construction project (and it is, in a way), he’d be getting a bonus.
All of this sets up a very interesting end to the regular season in the Eastern Conference. With NYCFC still holding 2 games in hand, this win was a huge 6-pointer, and the return fixture is still to come on September 25th. The Pigeons are currently 4 points behind Atlanta, so unless they drop points elsewhere, taking all 3 again on the microchip could well be a necessity. Moreover, 6 of Atlanta’s remaining games are on the road, including a visit to the Philadelphia Union, another key 6-point game. On top of that, 3 more of the final 9 games are against other teams currently in playoff position (the San Jose Earthquakes and New England Revolution at home, and the Montreal Impact away). NYCFC, by comparison, have 6 of their remaining 11 at home, but play 7 games against playoff opponents. More, they finish the season playing 7 games in 30 days. Philadelphia have just 8 games left, split evenly home and away. 6 are against playoff teams: DC United, Atlanta, San Jose, LAFC and both New York teams. On top of that, the gap between 3rd and 10th places is just 9 points. The East is wide open. It’s gonna be fun.
And to boot, we still have the Open Cup final and tonight’s Copa Champions to play. In anticipation then, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is Julian Gressel who had easily his best game of the season and, as shown above, pumped balls into the box at liberty. Special Mentions go to Josef Martinez for setting more records and to Darlington Nagbe, who was in complete control of midfield all game.
GK: Brad Guzan – 7. Brad made 3 saves, only 1 of which was difficult (a foot stop on Valentin Castellanos in the 23rd minute). Also fed Pity Martinez with a well-chosen throw to set up an excellent late chance.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 6.5. Another game, another yellow card. I don’t think it was a DOGSO, though, so it didn’t qualify for a red (the attacker was not close enough to the goal or the ball, and Miles and Franco Escobar were both in the vicinity). 3 tackles, 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries in a quietish defensive game.
CB: Miles Robinson – 8. Cheated out of his first MLS goal. 1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 5 clearances and a whopping 14 recoveries. Another excellent outing for the future USMNT centerback.
RB: Franco Escobar – 7. 1 tackle, 1 interception, 2 clearances, 1 block and 9 recoveries. 1 off-target shot. All in, a pretty good game.
LWB: Justin Meram – 7. Justin has quickly become one of Atlanta’s most entertaining players to watch. 2 shots on goal, 1 off-frame and 1 blocked. His passing numbers weren’t great--62.8% accuracy on 51 attempts—but his ball control is something to see.
LM Eric Remedi – 7. Played 78 minutes. Managed 11 recoveries in that time, and 37 passes with 86.5% connecting. All told, he wasn’t really challenged that much.
RM: Darlington Nagbe – 8. A relatively low 52 passes for 88.5% accuracy, but he moved around midfield with a ridiculous freedom, as if NYCFC were simply afraid to confront his legendary ball control.
RWB: Julian Gressel – 8.5. The yellow for the shirt pull was a bit dumb, but otherwise a magnificent outing. 77.3% accuracy on 44 passes, but when you are launching rockets into the box at will, a lot of them are going to miss. Also had 2 shots, 1 on frame.
FWD: Pity Martinez – 8. No deduction for the yellow card, as the slow-motion replay showed he didn’t even touch the guy. But there’s no VAR for yellow cards. There is VAR for penalty kicks, though, and he got shafted on the second one. For the first one, he suckered James Sands into the foul brilliantly. 4 shots, 3 on target. His best game yet in red and black.
FWD: Ezequiel Barco – 8. Played 78 minutes and was creative and productive in that time. 31 passes for 80.7% completion and 1 off-target shot.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 9. The scoring streak extended to a record 10 games. The 3-season scoring record is now 70 goals. And he did that with a gimpy leg. How did he manage that insane vertical leap? And how come every step in the PK run up wasn’t a hop? Oh, and he had 5 more shots and numerous other chances.
Those 70 goals have been accumulated in 76 appearances and include 6 hat tricks and 12 braces. He has played a total of 6,388 minutes and is scoring at a rate of a goal every 91 minutes and 16 seconds (or 0.99 goals per 90). The current MLS record for fastest to 100 goals is held by Bradley Wright-Phillips, who needed 159 games to reach that mark. Josef is 70% of the way there in 44% of the games.
SUB: Emerson Hyndman – 6. Replaced Barco after 78 minutes. Had one good chance on goal, but the delivery was off. Just 7 passes for 85.7% accuracy.
SUB: Jeff Larentowicz – 6. Came on with Emerson in place of Eric Remedi for defensive relief. 1 tackle, 1 block. 6 passes with 83.3% completion.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 8. The system is working. Nuff said.
SIZE – 10. It matters. And I’m talking about the pitch, you sick twisted minds.