May 15th. That was the last time Atlanta United had won on the road. Against the Vancouver Whitecaps, about whom the best that can be said is that they are not FC Cincinnati. Since then: the New York Red Bulls, Real Salt Lake, Toronto FC, the Chicago Fire, the Seattle Sounders and Los Angeles FC. All losses.
Granted, 4 of those 6 are teams in playoff position, and with the exception of the embarrassment in Bridgeview, all the losses were by a single goal. Still, that’s not good.
But then came Portland and the much-vaunted and ludicrously scheduled MLS Cup rematch that wasn’t actually an MLS Cup rematch. Although I do have to wonder: did Timbers Joey bother to show up? If he did, he was just as busy as he was last December.
Moreover, the Timbers find themselves currently in an insanely advantageous schedule to close the season. 11 of their last 12 games will be at home—this was the third game in that stretch—thanks to the renovations at Providence Park. After the final home game in last year’s playoffs on November 25th, the Timbers played the first 12 games of this season on the road. All to add a whopping 4,000 seats to the stadium. And they didn’t even add a roof.
To be fair, Providence Park’s 25,218 fans are loud, energetic and raucously partisan (and they also have some very unique but cool rituals for the national anthem). On this occasion, they wisely chose not to throw any shade with one of their often inventive tifos. And they were suspiciously quiet towards the end of the evening. But it remains a very tough place for visitors.
Not so much though for the 2020 Stripes. The change of location did absolutely nothing to change the final scoreline from back in December.
The injury to Franco Escobar forced Frank de Boer to play three card monte, shuffling his backline yet again, tasking Leandro Gonzalez Pirez with a rare game on the right. That worked out perfectly. Did LGP’s 3-shot performance against Club América in midweek factor into the decision? Who knows; sometimes genius and luck are indistinguishable.
The defense didn’t have it all their own way. That Brad Guzan was forced to make 5 saves to preserve the clean sheet is evidence enough of that. Miles Robinson was nearly unbeatable in the middle, but Florentin Pogba struggled to keep up with Jeremy Ebobisse on the left. Fully 33% of the game was played in Atlanta’s defensive third. This was a bend-but-don’t-break kind of strategy, tied with a blistering counter-attack.
Atlanta ended the game with 50.1% possession, relatively low by this year’s standards, and had just 2 more total passes than Portland, with lower accuracy to boot. The difference was that Atlanta made its chances count. They outshot Portland 19-16, although both teams had just 5 on target. Of those 19, only 4 were from outside the penalty area, continuing the recent trend by which Atlanta has found a way to penetrate deep. Not that it mattered, since one of those 4 long shots found the back of the net.
Here’s how Atlanta got that deep penetration:
In a word, crosses. There are few non-cross plays shown in the graphic, but that is because the data does not differentiate between regular passes and crosses in the definition of key passes. But the point is that United dumped a ton of balls into the box from out wide. There were a total of 24 wide plays that made it into the penalty area, and 13 reached their targets. Additionally, a further 12 passes reached the 18, 4 of them successfully (and 1 of the unsuccessful ones could be considered a cross as well).
The primary providers were of course Justin Meram and Julian Gressel. Since FdB moved him back out wide right, Gressel has morphed back into the player he was all last year. Over on the other flank, Meram has quickly become yet another brilliant and low-cost Atlanta pick-up, doing things that Brek Shea was hired to do but really couldn’t.
But the wide service also wouldn’t exist if not for the distribution out of midfield. And that came from a player whose repeated omission from the US national team remains a crime against soccer:
Note what you see a lot of. Passes going wide. In both directions. Note what you don’t see a lot of. Passes not finding their targets. And this is just an ordinary day at the office for Darlington Nagbe.
So, we picked up a much-needed road win. Considering that Atlanta has 5 more road games in the remaining 8, this was a huge confidence booster. Still, the road record remains poor. The Benz is, as usual, a fortress, in which United has dropped just 9 points this season (1 loss and 3 ties). Home PPG is 2.36. Only LAFC has a better home record (2.82). On the road, though, Atlanta has a lowly 12 points (1.00 PPG) and is tied for just 10th in MLS. Even in the Eastern Conference that’s only good enough for 6th. Was this game a signal that this will change down the final straight? I believe so.
Overall, United has 15 points from its last 6 games, tied for best in the league over that stretch (with, no surprise, LAFC). Atlanta has reached cruising altitude at just the right time and is in the pilot’s seat for the Eastern Conference playoffs. It took 26 games to reach the top of the Conference, but the team is in control of its destiny at last.
Up next, a much-needed rest day on Friday down in Orlando. Until then, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is Brad Guzan for a monumental effort between the pipes. Special Mentions go to Miles Robinson, Darlington Nagbe and Justin Meram, all of whom had excellent games.
GK: Brad Guzan – 9. He really had to earn his 12th clean sheet. 5 saves, and none of them were routine. The diving save to his left deserves a Save of the Week nod, but MLS doesn’t seem to be doing those any more.
CB: Florentin Pogba – 5.5. As noted above, he was outpaced and was also out of position a lot, especially in the first half. Just 1 interception, 2 clearances and 6 recoveries. However, don’t bother trying to knock him down. You know, when he’s not in the opponent’s 18. Also picked up a yellow card, so not a very good outing.
CB: Miles Robinson – 8. 2 tackles, 5 interceptions, 5 clearances and 6 recoveries. Another very strong game. No shots on goal, though, despite Atlanta racking up 9 corners.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 8. Just 6 days shy of a year since LGP’s last goal (he’s averaging 1 a season). And he upped his shot total to 4 this game. That’s 7 in a week. Only 1 on target, but it counted. Defensively, 5 tackles, 2 interceptions, 3 clearances, 2 blocks and 6 recoveries. A very productive evening.
LWB: Justin Meram – 8. Played 84 minutes. No shots, but 37 passes with 75.7% accuracy. That may seem low, but consider the graphics above; he’s making low-percentage attempts.
LM Jeff Larentowicz – 6.5. Another yellow for Jeff, who was not overly active in this game. Defensively, 3 tackles, 1 clearance, 1 block and 5 recoveries. Passing was also low: just 27 with 81.5% completion.
RM: Darlington Nagbe – 8. 51 passes. Just 4 not connecting. And don’t bother trying to take the ball from him. When you have a player in the middle who can do that, the rest of the team is freed up to do all sorts of creative things.
RWB: Julian Gressel – 9. 44 passes, 77.3% accuracy. 3 shots, 1 on frame. And the assist on Josef’s banger. Mission accomplished.
LAM: Ezequiel Barco – 7. A good, but not great game from Zeke. He played 72 minutes, accruing just 23 passes for 69.6% accuracy. 2 shots, 1 on goal that really should have been finished. He has been moving around the field very freely, but needs to get more out of that movement. However, he was fouled 4 times, more than any other player in the game, and got a softish yellow card for his frustrations.
RAM: Pity Martinez – 8. Stiffed yet again on a clear penalty call. And Bill Tuiloma was lucky not to see at least a yellow for the DOGSO, if not a red. Otherwise, played a good game. Other than his finishing, that is. All 5 shots were off target, although that free kick was painfully close. Rested with just 2 minutes remaining.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 8. Another game, another goal. Josef extended his record streak in style with a long range golazo that made the Goal of the Week ballot.
SUB: Emerson Hyndman – 6. Came on for Barco, likely to slow the game down a bit. Just 10 passes with 9 finding their targets.
SUB: Dion Pereira – 6. Played 6 official minutes, not really doing much.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 6. Came on as the late closer, and managed to get a long shot in.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 8. His team has won 8 of its last 10 games in all competitions. Tata Martino’s team never managed better than 7 over any such period.
STUART HOLDEN’S WARDROBE MANAGER – 0. Grief. He looked a high school junior going to his first prom. In the 70s.