I’ve been wondering: when the Columbus Crew showed up at Nippert Stadium last month for the absurdly-named Hell is Real Derby wearing their home yellow kit, was that an intentional troll against Cincinnati, given that Chiquita Brands left town for Charlotte 8 years ago?
If you interpreted that lede as an indication of my mind wandering as a result of boredom while watching this game, you would be correct. It was 90+ minutes of tedious kick-around punctuated by two brief moments of utter brilliance.
One of which was either utterly ironic or totally predictable, depending on the degree of negativity with which you view the world (which for most Atlanta sports fans is fairly high, Atlanta United’s record to date notwithstanding).
Ironic how? Well, the 15-and-counting Stripes had been playing a uninterrupted but completely futile press against a resolutely bunkering FC Cincinnati. In the first half they attempted 9 shots, only 5 of which were inside the 18, and only 2 on target, of which one was an extreme long-range shot by Justin Meram. In the first 13 minutes of the second half, they attempted precisely 0 shots. That despite holding 77.8% possession through the opening 55 minutes.
And then they scored. On the counter from a Cincy corner. From Brad Guzan’s punched clearance to the ball hitting the net at the opposite end took all of 12 seconds. Moreover, it occurred during Atlanta’s lowest 5-minute stretch of possession to that point.
Game plans be damned. Just score, baby.
Also, this was Josef Martinez’ shout to Usain Bolt: see if you can run this fast on turf after 58 minutes of hard work and wearing soccer cleats, a sweat-soaked uniform and this ridiculous Opta sports bra.
5 minutes later, he scored again. This time, he did it with a degree of filth that should be impossible on dry turf, as compared with, you know, that other stadium in Ohio.
Other than that, and maybe Miles Robinson’s near thing earlier in the game, nothing much of consequence happened.
How effective was that Cincinnati bunker? 63.6% of Atlanta’s whopping 585 passes were in the attacking half. But only 27.9% were in the final third. Moreover, those final third passes had a 67% completion rate as compared with the overall 83% and attacking half 75%. The closer Atlanta got to goal, the harder it got to find space.
The heatmap shows this pretty clearly:
United ran into a wall at the final third. Even so, 30% of the game was played in that third. Note also that the left side was far more advanced than the right, which reflects at least in part how free Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was to move forward.
Speaking of LGP, if he had received fair treatment from center referee Marcos de Oliveira (in his first season in MLS, and his first Atlanta game), the game could have been an absolute blowout. Kekuta Manneh got away without so much as a yellow card for his studs to LGP’s stomach in the 7th minute. No card. No VAR. United should arguably have been a man up after that. And Justin Meram got a yellow for a relatively innocuous foul just 7 minutes later. Hmm.
Another thing to consider: despite holding only 33.6% possession, Cincy still managed to get 14 shots off. Just 1 less than Atlanta. 8 of those were in the second half when Atlanta had backed off the attack a bit, but even so that’s reason for concern. A stronger team than Cincinnati will take much greater advantage of opportunities afforded them at that rate. Which is to say, everyone in MLS.
In the end, the job got done. The top three in the Eastern Conference are now bunched up in a 6-point gap, and no one has games in hand over the other two, although all 3 have games in hand against the rest of the Conference except the New England Revolution. Atlanta and New York City FC have a 1-win tiebreak advantage over the Philadelphia Union, but NYCFC has a strong 5-goal edge in GD over Atlanta (Philly trails Atlanta by 2).
Top spot in the Conference is not entirely out of reach, but the next 2 games against San Jose Earthquakes and NYCFC are critical. Taking second place is definitely doable. Atlanta is behind Philly by just 1 point. The Union play the New York Red Bulls, San Jose and Columbus all on the road before returning home for an implication-laden season finale against NYCFC. If Atlanta does finish second, there is a strong possibility that they would host the Revs at MBS. Who happen to be the season finale opponent, also at MBS.
Much lies ahead, but for now here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is Josef Martinez for being his usual regal self. Special Mentions to Pity Martinez and Miles Robinson for important contributions.
GK: Brad Guzan – 8. This was Brad’s 14th clean sheet of the season. That puts him one ahead of his previous best and into a tie for 3rd all-time. He is 1 behind second place (Jimmy Nielsen, Sporting Kansas City 2012) and 2 behind leader Tony di Meola (Kansas City Wizards 2000). However, all of Brad’s this season are wins, which puts him in a tie with Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls 2018) for the all-time lead in that category. Despite being very solid in the game, Brad recorded just 1 save. Kevin Egan and Dan Gargan would have us believe he made 2, but here’s the thing guys: if the keeper deflects it and it’s still heading for goal, it’s not a save. Eric Remedi was credited with a block on that one.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 7. 2 tackles, 3 interceptions, 3 clearances and 5 recoveries. He also got in a shot (off-target). He picked up a yellow card (and is now tied for most cards this season), but doesn’t get docked for it. Why? Because guess who he fouled. Yeah, the aforementioned Kekuta Manneh.
That yellow puts him 1 away from another suspension, although barring a red card that would be his last for this season (if he gets a yellow against San Jose, he would only be eligible for 2 more regular season games. That would be enough for a further suspension with more games remaining, but yellow card accumulation does not carry forward to the playoffs or the following season).
CB: Miles Robinson – 7. 1 tackle, 1 interception, 1 clearance, 1 block and 1 recovery. Low numbers by his normal standards even though he was pretty much the only defender for long stretches. But he is also very good at defending from behind, which he continued to demonstrate Wednesday night. Also came oh so close to his first MLS goal.
CB: Franco Escobar – 6.5. 1 tackle, 1 interception, 3 clearances, 1 block and 5 recoveries. Not especially effective going forward though, and did get the yellow card for running his mouth.
LWB: Justin Meram – 5.5. Got a softish yellow, and did get a shot on frame, but his passing was generally blah: 76.1% accuracy on 46 tries. 4 decent balls into the box though, only 1 connecting. Left after 86 minutes.
LM Eric Remedi – 7. Got that goal-line stop, and managed 86.7% completion on 60 passes. More or less mirrored Darlington Nagbe in this. Also had an off-target shot. More or less mirrored Darlington Nagbe in that.
RM: Darlington Nagbe – 7. 58 passes, 93.1% completion. Nothing new here, people.
RWB: Julian Gressel – 7. Credited with the assist on Josef’s second goal, but let’s face it, Josef did all the work himself on that one. 76.9% accuracy on 52 passes, and got 8 deliveries into the 18. Also had 3 shots, with 1 on goal. A solid night’s work.
LAM: Emerson Hyndman – 7. 43 passes and 79.1% accuracy, but that clearance off Brad’s punch was inch-perfect. Getting Josef the ball with only 2 guys between him and goal is always the right play. Even if it’s 90 yards from goal.
RAM: Pity Martinez – 8. Managed just 23 passes with 69.6% connecting, and took 3 shots off target. But 6 of those were into the box, and the assist on the first goal…oh my.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 9. That’s now 15 straight games with at least 1 goal. He is now tied for second all-time with the storied Tor Enning Hamre of Flora Tallinn, trailing only Lionel Messi (who he?) by 6 games. Moreover, he did it in style. A lot of style. Carlos Vela now leads him and Zlatan Ibrahimovic by just 2 goals in the Golden Boot race. He has scored 26 of Atlanta’s 50 goals this season. He is also up to 76 goals in his MLS career in just 81 games, and has a goals per 90 rate of 1.0003.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 7. Tito got 30 minutes Wednesday, his most in MLS play since May 19th. He looked pretty good in them too. 2 shots with 1 on goal and 63.6% accuracy on 11 passes.
SUB: Dion Pereira – 7. Also did well in 4 official minutes, completing 7 of 8 passes and being a general nuisance on the left wing.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 7. Right game plan and right result, but he needs to get his team up to full speed for the final stretch and the playoffs.
GOING DUTCH – 10. There have been 5 Dutch managers in MLS, but this was the first head-to-head meeting. FdB’s four countrymen are Hans Westerhof (Chivas USA 2005), Ruud Gullit (LA Galaxy 2008), Aron Winter (Toronto FC 2011-12) and Ron Jans (FCC 2019). They have a combined record in MLS regular season play of 18-68-27 (none of them managed any playoff games) for PPG of 0.79. FdB has just 2 fewer wins than the rest of them combined, and PPG of 1.70. And that doesn’t count his other successes so far.