Yes, by August 23rd, a good chunk of Atlanta United will have made 3 visits to Orlando in the space of 24 days. It’s as if the City of Orlando is starved for good soccer to watch.
The good news of course is that four days after that Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be hosting its second soccer championship game in less than a year. We understand that Magic City is already making preparations to welcome another silvery guest.
The other bad news is that this will shoehorn yet another midweek game into an already crazy schedule, and with a key league game at the Philadelphia Union coming up that weekend. When did winning become its own penalty?
To get to that situation, Tuesday night the 6-0-2 Stripes took on ten guys with funny names plus Will Johnson (who is the very antithesis of funny) and beat them for the 6th time in 8 meetings. All four games at Exploria Stadium have been wins. The two draws in the series were both in Atlanta, surprisingly, but were also in 2017. And one of those was at Bobby Dodd.
This time, the trolling was thoroughly on display. Forced to leave Josef Martinez behind to munch on chicken wings, the official pre-game tweet started it by suggesting that the much-loved ex-Lion Justin Meram would start at striker:
Entirely unintentional, of course. Coach Frank de Boer got in on the fun by yanking Ezequiel Barco shortly after half time and inserting Andrew Carleton, who had logged just 64 first team minutes this season, and then later putting in Orlando nemesis Tito Villalba for a short stint after a long injury recovery. After the game he talked about how his team “fought like lions”, and please tell me that wasn’t a coincidence.
The game itself played out in five distinct stretches. Atlanta utterly dominated the first half, racking up 11 shots, with 5 on target and maintaining 58.9% possession. 67% of the team’s passes in the half were in the Orlando end of the field. That domination continued at a rather less aggressive pace through the 60th minute. Then they went into bunker mode for 15 minutes. Then came 5 minutes of domination again and the second goal to ice the game, followed by a final ten minutes (actually 17 including the rather lengthy stoppage time) of bunkering to finish the game off. By the final whistle, Atlanta’s possession had dropped to just 50.6%.
The difference between the two halves overall was marked. Consider the passing charts:
First half is on the left. Note that this is just the successful passes. Unsuccessful passes were about the same numerically in both halves, with the difference being that they were much more advanced in the first half. But that is in the nature of bunkering: a meaningful fraction of the second half was spent simply booting the ball upfield with no expectation of finding an Atlanta player to receive it.
The brief period of dominance in the final 30 minutes was also something of an aberration, in that Orlando for no obvious reason backed off its press. It also didn’t help that Orlando coach James O’Connor, he of the incomprehensible Irish accent, decided at that point to combine the substitution of Alex de John for Joao Moutinho with a shift to 3 at the back, despite Atlanta having a throw-in in the attacking half. Within 35 seconds of play restarting, Emerson Hyndman scored the clincher.
And so, despite Atlanta falling victim to the injury bug yet again, the inevitable happened. The 3-5-2 demonstrated its operational flexibility, allowing FdB to rotate his attacking options while maintaining superiority in the midfield and resilience at the back. Now we welcome Minnesota for the first ever 2017 expansion United Championship derby.
Here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match was Eric Remedi for demonstrating that a central defensive midfielder is entirely unnecessary when playing Orlando. Special Mentions are awarded to Emerson Hyndman for opening his Atlanta scoring account and to Justin Meram for pointedly ignoring the crass boo birds and proving that they don’t deserve good players.
NOTE: the following ratings have all been deducted a full point on the grounds that the game was played against Orlando.
GK: Brad Guzan – 7. Brad made a massive 2 saves in the game, one in the latter stages of each half. Craftily allowed Dom Dwyer to get within the penalty area, that being the safest place for him to be. Picked up a yellow card for time-wasting, for which he doesn’t get dinged, because that was good, and who cares with no accumulation risk?
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 6.5. OK, LGP does get penalized for his yellow card, because, well, he’s LGP. 2 tackles, 2 blocks, 3 interceptions, 5 clearances and 7 recoveries. A solid evening’s work.
CB: Miles Robinson – 7. 1 block, 5 interceptions, 6 clearances and 6 recoveries. Pretty typical Miles, that is. NO tackles, though, but that’s because he simply beats attackers to the ball. Two headed attempts on goal, both barely off target. At half time James O’Connor explained that his team needed to “break their back tree”, which was clearly an egregious call to violence against Miles.
RB: Franco Escobar – 6.5. Also got a yellow card, possibly a little unfairly. Like Miles, Franco logged no tackles, with no real attack down his side of the field. 1 block, 3 interceptions, 2 clearances and 6 recoveries.
The 3-man back line aggregated 19 recoveries, which is as much an indication of Orlando’s poor passing as it is of Atlanta’s defensive superiority.
LWB: Justin Meram – 7. Justin was clearly up for this game, and made his 66 minutes count. Consistently got past Ruan to create chances. 32 passes for 84.4% accuracy, a 2 shots off frame.
LM Eric Remedi – 9. 3 shots, all on target. And add in the hockey assist for Emerson’s goal. 28 passes with 92.9% completion. Defensively? Just 5 recoveries. Eric was basically playing CAM.
CM: Emerson Hyndman – 8. 2 shots on target. 33 passes, 78.8% connecting. That’s not spectacular, but the goal makes up for that.
RM: Darlington Nagbe – 7. Darlington stuck to the midfield for this one, getting in no attempts on goal. A relatively low 50 passes, but with a typically high 92% accuracy.
RWB: Julian Gressel – 7. The assist aside, not that great a game for Julian, who has been a tad erratic this season. No shots, and 41 passes, with only 78% on target.
FWD: Pity Martinez – 6. 3 shots, 1 on target. A lowly 35 passes, with a poor 57.1% accuracy. Not a great night.
FWD: Ezequiel Barco – 7. Played just 50 minutes, which was apparently planned, but certainly seemed to be a surprise to him. In his abbreviated time, he had 2 shots, including 1 on target, which he really should have finished. 22 passes, with 90.9% accuracy.
SUB: Andrew Carleton – 7. A surprise selection, but Andrew played well. He had 1 blocked shot, and was in position for another strong chance on goal. Buzzed around the field in a very Barco-like manner. Just 11 passes with 81.8% connecting, but Atlanta was largely on the back foot for most of his stint.
SUB: Florentin Pogba – 7. Played 24 official minutes, replacing Meram in a blatantly defensive move. 3 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 clearance and 1 recovery.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 6. Looked rather slow, which is hardly a shocker. Brought on for Pity in the 80th minute, Tito had just 5 passes with only 2 connecting, and only one attempted pass in the attacking half. On the other hand, he had 1 tackle, 1 interception and 4 recoveries.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 8. Stuck to his 3-5-2 guns despite losing a major attacking threat. It worked. But then, what doesn’t work against Orlando?
THE WALL – 0. From now on, any Orlando fan who chooses to be in this section shall be known as a Wally.