OK, here’s the good news:
- Atlanta won, obviously.
- With the win, Atlanta holds the tiebreak advantage in the regular season standings.
- Atlanta locked up a top three finish in the Eastern Conference, guaranteeing home field advantage in the first playoff game.
- On Sunday, the Philadelphia Union lost 2-0 at the New York Red Bulls, and New York City FC tied 1-1 at FC Dallas, tightening up the top three in the conference.
- NYCFC’s goal difference advantage (the second tiebreaker) narrowed to just 3.
The bad news:
- Josef Martinez got hurt at a critical point in the season, obviously.
- With the two red cards, Cristian Espinoza and Chris Wondolowski are both ineligible for the San Jose Earthquakes’ next game on Wednesday. Which happens to be against Philadelphia.
- San Jose manager Matias Almeyda is also ineligible for that game.
Of the negatives, losing Josef for an indeterminate time is clearly the worst. But San Jose going into what is clearly an important game for Atlanta without two key players and their manager isn’t exactly good. However, it may not be too bad. The Union are not the greatest road team, with a record of 5-7-3 away from Talen Energy Stadium. Further, they are an anemic 3-4-4 against the Western Conference. On the road against the West they are 1-3-1.
San Jose may actually be better off without Almeyda. OK, that’s a joke, but this was just his second game back after a three-game suspension for similar sideline antics in the Quakes’ loss at Los Angeles FC on August 21. San Jose went 2-1-0 without him.
In light of that recent history and his known tendency for emotional overreaction, Almeyda’s ejection was hardly a surprise. Espinoza’s sending-off was likewise the correct decision on Chris Penso’s part, who may have been somewhat lenient in merely issuing a second yellow for the double-stomp on Franco Escobar (anyone remember the straight red given to Carlos Carmona in Atlanta’s debut game for the tap on Felipe?).
What was a shock though was the red to Wondolowski, who has a deserved reputation for being a clean player. Not only is it rare to issue cards to substituted players on the bench, but it was given for foul and abusive language. That’s also rare at this level, so he must have really shot his mouth. Further, it was the first red card of Wondo’s professional career, which totals 440 club and international games.
The game itself played out in 4 distinct phases.
The first lasted just 5 minutes. The Unlucky 31 Stripes came out fast, managing an early 59% possession. In those 5 minutes San Jose managed just 11 pass attempts, with just 8 of them successful, and all of them were in their own half. Atlanta had double that, but the same number of failed passes, and 10 were in the attacking half. The result was an early goal by Justin Meram, assisted by a deflection off San Jose’s Judson.
After that Atlanta appeared to go into a bunkering strategy. For the next 30 minutes, up to the point of Espinoza’s ejection, San Jose held 61.3% possession…and did absolutely nothing with it. Except get a lucky goal, that is, courtesy of a double deflection off Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Brad Guzan. Other than that, they were unthreatening and Atlanta never really looked under pressure.
And then the game changed again, swinging back heavily into Atlanta’s favor. Even so, the first half ended with just 4 shots having been attempted. All of them were by Atlanta, though, and 2 were after the sending off, including the point-blank miss by Emerson Hyndman. The second half started out in much the same fashion, with Atlanta dominating but not finishing well. Over the next 30 minutes, United took just 3 more shots. San Jose did finally get a shot off 70 minutes into the game (they ended up with 3 official shots).
Then…disaster. Josef got hurt in an unfortunate collision with Pity Martinez and was forced out of the game. Long-term, not good. But for this game, it seemed to energize United. Over the final 15 minutes Atlanta peppered Daniel Vega’s goal with 11 shots. Despite that worthy doing his valiant best, racking up 9 saves, Hyndman was able to atone for his earlier blunder, and Pity slotted home an easy clincher to avenge a stupendous save of a free kick earlier in the game.
Tactically, games like this don’t offer much to analyze. After going down a man, San Jose were clearly playing for survival, as is common in such situations. They almost made it: the go-ahead goal came with just 31 seconds left on the clock. What made this game different from Atlanta’s perspective is that San Jose employs a man-marking defensive style not much in use in MLS. It was effective: it clearly frustrated Atlanta, who are more used to seeing teams either bunker or press against them.
But 11 men usually win over 10. Especially on large fields like MBS, which will tire an understrength team more quickly. In the end, that’s what happened.
And so the Eastern Conference race, while maybe not as exciting as last year’s, enters the final stretch in top gear. All three teams at the top of the table have 3 games left, but only 7 games in total. That’s because NYCFC plays both Atlanta (at home Wednesday) and Philadelphia (in Philly in the season finale). Moreover, the New England Revolution will have something to say about the race if they don’t win at Portland on Wednesday. The Revs are clinging on to the final and only undecided playoff spot and have games against NYCFC and at Atlanta to finish their season. As of right now, if they don’t beat the Timbers, they will need to win one of those two games to secure a playoff spot.
Philadelphia also need to keep an eye on D.C United and the New York Red Bulls, who could knock the Union out of a home playoff game. Philly needs at least 3 points to make sure that doesn’t happen.
With that, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is Emerson Hyndman, who really stepped up. Special Mentions to Pity Martinez, who had a very good game, and to Darlington Nagbe, who unsurprisingly controlled the midfield. Josef Martinez gets an Extra Special Mention, for being everything that he is.
GK: Brad Guzan – 7. Dinging Brad for the own goal would be unjust, I think. He had to come out to challenge Espinoza. So did LGP. LGP’s block bouncing of his leg was hardly the fault of either of them. 2 saves in the game, in which he was hardly tested.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 7. 1 tackle, 1 interception, 4 clearances, 1 block and 11 recoveries. Also had 1 shot off target. And avoided a yellow, which in a game that saw 7 of them is amazing. That means he is available for the NYCFC game on Wednesday.
CB: Miles Robinson – 7. 1 interception, 1 clearance and 11 recoveries. 1shot on target. Something of an afternoon off for Miles. Defensively, that is. He racked up a team-leading 89 passes, with 93.3% completion.
CB: Franco Escobar – 6. Not a particularly strong game for Franco. 3 tackles, 2 clearances and 6 recoveries. 89.2% passing on just 37 attempts, and he was the only defender not to try a shot.
LWB: Justin Meram – 6.5. I’ve watched the goal several times over, and I am still not sure if it was headed for the net without Judson’s deflection. I think it was, and likely would have ended up close to Vega’s left post, and hard to stop. Got a silly yellow, and left after 60 minutes.
LM: Eric Remedi – 6. Left the game in the 65th minute. To that point Eric had managed 40 passes with 82.5% accuracy, and mostly in the attacking half, though never close to goal.
RM: Darlington Nagbe – 7. A surprisingly low pass total: just 38, but with 94.7% accuracy. His strength in this game though was in being so difficult to dispossess; when faced with man-marking that’s a useful talent. He also took 2 shots, and both were on goal. Darlington led the game’s Audi Index with 783 points.
RWB: Julian Gressel – 6. 2 shots, 1 on goal. A very low 24 passes with just 75% connecting. That reflects the defensive shield San Jose threw up, but even so, he managed to get 8 crosses into the box.
LAM: Emerson Hyndman – 7.5. Got 1 of the game’s many yellow cards, but was the game’s most effective scoring threat. 3 of his 4 shots were on goal, and the one that wasn’t really should have been the one that was. 88.9% completion on 36 passes.
RAM: Pity Martinez – 8. Also took 4 shots, and 2 were on target. Pity was a far better scoring option than usual. Just 61.1% accuracy on 36 passes, but of those 9 were in the 18.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 7. This has to have been the most heartbreaking game of Josef’s Atlanta career. In addition to a potentially severe injury, he managed no shots, and his scoring streak came to an end. But seeing him in tears on the sideline shows how emotionally invested he is in this team and city, and he deserves reciprocation. One small consolation: he was voted MLS Player of the Week.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 6. Replaced Justin. Managed just 7 passes, with only 5 finding their target.
SUB: Brandon Vazquez – 7. Came on for Eric Remedi in a clear attacking adjustment. Took 2 shots, 1 on frame. He may be about to get far more important.
SUB: Mo Adams – 7. The substitution that probably even he didn’t want to make. 1 shot on target, and a perfect 100% accuracy on 11 passes, although all were in midfield.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 7. The game plan was working perfectly early. Then he was faced with some tough decisions. And now he’s faced with some more.
CAPO GAME AWARENESS – 0. When your beloved king is being taken off on a stretcher, you may want to consider changing your cheer schedule.