Atlanta United pulled off their second ever comeback road win on Sunday to clinch its playoff position for the fourth time in five years. If it wasn’t for the fact that Josef absolutely deserved to be in the title of this article, Gonzalo Pineda’s quote described Martinez’s Goal of the Year-contender best, “One of the most beautiful goals I’ve seen.”
Atlanta stepped out onto the pitch on Decision Day, though, and initially looked admittedly terrible against FC Cincinnati. The first half saw the worst team in the league go up by one, while the Five Stripes just looked lazy. There was no urgency, the touches were sloppy, and the whole group just seemed disjointed.
Hey....instead of resetting our clocks back an hour can we unplug Atlanta United for 30 seconds and plug them back in?— Tyler Pilgrim (@ATLPilgrim) November 7, 2021
JEFF SAID HE'S DISAPPOINTED— Dirty South Soccer (@DirtySouthSoc) November 7, 2021
HOW DARE YOU ATLANTA UNITED
Needless to say, the first half sucked.
What happened next is well documented below in the form of quotes from Gonzo, Brad Guzan, and Josef himself. They point out a couple of factors that led to the colossal turnaround, both of which probably every Atlanta United fan was screaming when the first 45 was up. These two factors were the mentality and the tactics (formation).
Pineda mentions that it wasn’t so much a tactics shift as it was the team got their collective head screwed on straight in the locker room. Apparently Brad gave one of those “Remember the Titans” speeches, and it worked. The change to a back four was definitely the cherry on top, because no formation change was going to help the Five Stripes if they couldn’t simply wake up.
Atlanta United came out in the second half and it became apparent that Gonzo did all the right things as a manager. The subs entered and made an impact and the chances started getting created. Miles Robinson finally found his first MLS goal (after almost scoring about two others). And then Josef Martinez did a thing which you already know about but that needs repeating. In the earlier words of Gonzalo Pineda, “That was a f&$#ing golazo!”
Atlanta head coach Gonzalo Pineda
On the change in energy and effort from the first half to the second half
“A little bit the tactics, the back five wasn’t shifting as we wanted. Defensively we were struggling the first few minutes and Medunjanin coming on the outside caused a little bit of problems and that’s how they started to have dominance in the attacking half. But yes, I felt that the energy, the urgency, to play forward, play fast, play simple, wasn’t quite there in the first half. Credit to the players, they adjusted, they did a great job turning things around, playing better football and creating chances and then a few very good goals.”
On how important the team’s last two performances are heading into the playoffs
“It feels very good. Not just this game. I think this game is a testament of probably what was the season for the team. The first half of the season was not great, not a lot of points, then second half was very good. Credit to the players again. I told the players, the last time Atlanta United played in this stadium there were 13 games and 13 points and now 21 games after we have 38 points more. So, that’s pretty impressive. That’s almost two points per game and that is a testament to the mentality of the team in the second half of the season and it’s all a credit to them. The first few games when I wasn’t here, Rob and the rest of the coaching staff did a terrific job at stepping up and putting together the group to fight and compete, and now the players at the end of the season they have a playoff spot and a new tournament is going to start for the group of players.”
On his reaction to Josef Martinez’s goal
“I couldn’t believe it. One of the most beautiful goals I’ve seen. I think the execution, the angle, the way he placed the ball in the top corner, the moment of the game where probably we were not super sharp in the final third missing a few chances and then Josef coming to do what he does best, which is scoring fantastic goals. I’m just very happy for him because it was a very hard season for him personally with injuries and finishing the season with a last great goal is very encouraging for him.”
On where Atlanta finished and what he learned from the second half of this match
“I mean, Felipe, sometimes tactically, and you saw probably because you are smart tactically, but if you saw the change of the back four and putting a natural left-footed winger on the left and then with (George) Bello overlapping trying to overload that side and then on the right side with Luiz (Araújo) and Ronald (Hernandez) overlapping so tactically there are things we did well but it was more about the mentality of the team. That’s where I challenged them. I said yes, we’ll make adjustments from the first half but the attitude needs to change. And the attitude was I have to play faster, play simpler, try to play forward and the little things that make us a good team. And I think they did great. We overloaded the opposition and created many chances and we scored two goals that put us in a good position so that’s what changed the tactics and the mentality.”
On his decision to start with three center backs
“We were expecting exactly what we saw, Brenner and Brandon Vazquez as forwards in a 4-4-2 and then you start to create numerical advantages. You have three center backs against two so you should have Miles (Robinson) a lot of times going forward bringing a winger here and then that unlocks Ronald or Luiz Araújo between the lines or maybe Rossetto can play lateral and then break the lines so it’s a chain reaction of numerical advantages after you break the first line of pressure through that 3-v-2 so that’s what we were expecting and after that being solid defensively because we knew that probably transition would be an issue so that’s what tactically made us make the decision and we were playing good with a back five. The team feels alright with a back five and the buildup is good but today when we switched the principles are still there and we were good on the ball and we didn’t need that third center back to be dangerous so I can go both ways, one thing is tactically and the other is the quality and the application of the players and that’s what made the difference tonight.”
Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan
On his satisfaction of the team’s performance in the second half
“I said at halftime when I came in [to the locker room] we can’t play like that, plain and simple. That’s not us as a team. That’s not good enough for the type of team we’re trying to become in terms of being a championship team or wanting to do something special in the playoffs. That effort, that mentality is not going to cut it going into these playoffs. So I’m extremely proud of the guys to come out and literally play the complete opposite of how we played in the first half – with urgency, with intensity, with some savviness, some smartness and be able to grind out a result. So it was good.
On his thoughts for why the team started sluggish in the first half
“I don’t know. We talked about having the right mentality. We talked about getting off to a good start. We talked about the fact that their team has nothing to play for except for contracts and pride in their last home game. It’s going to be a hard game. I don’t care if you’re playing the first-place team in this league or the last-place team in the league, any game in this league is going to be difficult because of the quality that all teams have. And if you give them an inch, they’ll take a yard; and we gave them more than an inch in the first half. I felt like we were chasing shadows. They had a good chance two minutes into the game. We never really got out of our half up until probably the last 10 minutes or so when we started to shift the game a little bit – but at that point they were content with sitting in. I think you saw a change in their mentality after the goal. You saw a change in their approach to the game, it certainly changed after the goal and it allowed us to find out footing, but then ultimately raise the level and press on.”
On his discussion with Gonzalo Pineda during a first half stoppage
“Without getting into too much detail, it was tactical and what I’m seeing from back there. We weren’t surprised by what they were presenting, but we weren’t able to solve it in terms of their overload, with their interior midfielder rolling outside, the full back pushed up a little higher, the winger outside and all of a sudden George Bello is faced with a 2-v-1 or a 3-v-1 and we were getting outnumbered. And again, we weren’t getting close to bodies, we weren’t getting close to guys and so he recognized it as well. It’s always difficult in the midst of a half to change things tactically with the players on the field and trying to get those messages across. But I thought we did a fantastic job at halftime of not only altering our tactics, but altering our mentality. The manager spoke at halftime and he said it wasn’t about tactics. It’s about our application, our mentality, our effort, our attitude. And you certainly saw a change of that at halftime and going into the second half.”
On what the team actually did at halftime to change that mentality
“Obviously the manager wasn’t pleased. I certainly wasn’t pleased. That’s unacceptable – the way that we started the game is unacceptable at this level. Plain and simple. It’s not good enough. And it’s our job as players to be held accountable. From myself up to Josef and everyone in between – the guys on the bench, coaches, support staff, everybody – and when guys aren’t pulling their weight, especially their workrate and their attitude and their mentality, those are things that we can control. Those are things that we can change like that. Especially when they’re not good. It’s important that you have those real conversations. There were some choice words being said at halftime and I was pleased to be able to see the reaction, knowing that we’re going to need performances like that second half going forward into the playoffs.”
On Josef Martinez’s goal
“His technique and skill level, that part doesn’t surprise me because I know he has it. For me, the most impressive thing is his awareness. His awareness of where the goalkeeper potentially could be. His awareness of where the goal is. His awareness of where he is, how he’s faced. So for me, that part was the impressive side of that goal. That being said, I had to give him a little stick after the game. I said, ‘listen, you miss breakaways, you miss this, you miss that, but all of a sudden this bouncing ball out of nothing, you hook it over your shoulder.’ I said I believe in you, pal.’ He proved why he’s Josef Martinez and why he’s so good. Those are moments you can’t coach or teach.”
If he did the same thing to Miles Robinson
“Yes I told him that was the first of 100. Miles is on his way to 100. He’s the next one after Josef.”
On Josef finding a way to score a goal after struggling throughout the game
“It doesn’t give me confidence because I know he’s got that. I know the type of mentality that he has. I’m not concerned in those moments, I don’t think anyone is concerned in those moments with Josef because with what he has proven time and time again. I think we’ve learned that he’s human just like the rest of us, but with that being said, you saw the mentality that he has when he’s in the box. It was a fantastic finish.
If the team is better playing in a back four versus a back three
“I wouldn’t say so. It’s also down to the opposition; it depends what the game is giving us. It’s not that we’re just going to stick with this and roll it out time and time again. When things aren’t going well, we’re able to adjust, whether that’s four to a five, or five to a four. We’re able to adjust and make changes and I think those are signs of a good team that can alter their shape, alter their tactics and ultimately find a result. So, I wouldn’t say we’re better in a four or five. We’re at our best when we’re moving the ball, when we’re following instructions for how we want to exploit space, and when we’re playing unselfishly and circulating the ball in a real way that creates chances for us.”
Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez
On where his goal came from and what made him decide to attempt that
“I don’t know where the goal came from, but after the save that he made before when I had a chance and I just said to coach that it was tough and I didn’t think we were going to get the goal. So I don’t remember when I’ve scored a goal like that but I’m very happy and we worked hard to advance.”
On what changed in the second half and why there needed to be such a drastic change
“I don’t know what happened to us in the first half. We didn’t play a bad half but the attitude wasn’t correct, starting with myself. I don’t know why we were so relaxed, I imagine maybe because of the results that we had in our favor. And in the second half we made a change that could help us, we had many players back where we didn’t need it and I think in the second half we went after the game which was what we needed to do from the first minute. We have to correct a lot and we need players who think because it’s not just about running but you have to think.”
On how he feels about the team’s mentality heading into the playoffs and with its last two results
“I think if we would have had better results and not lost so many points during the year, the start was tough and then we had many games where we lost points at the end of games, I think then with the circumstances we wouldn’t have had to suffer but, well, that’s what happened. We’re happy but we’re worried about the errors that were made, not just against Red Bull but also against Toronto, that for us, soccer-wise wasn’t bad but personally a little worrying and today the first half.”
On how Brad’s halftime message was received by him and others
“Yes, he evidently had to say something. I’ve tried to improve my reactions because lately I’ve tried to stay calm and not talk because sometimes I don’t react in the best way but I think that was the correct thing as he’s the captain and a reference and we need players like that. I just simply tried to listen and I was involved in the attitude not being correct in the first half so I didn’t want to add anything to Brad’s comments but the important thing is that in the second half Atlanta played different.”
On Brad saying Miles Robinson is on his way to 100 goals and if Josef’s worried
“Firstly, I’m very happy for Miles because he’s had a fundamental year, a very important year for him and I congratulate him. And I’m happy for players like him who help on the field but also have the ability to score goals. He deserves it because he’s had an incredible year and he works for that.”
If Atlanta United can consistently play a full 90 and not have these mental lapses, the playoffs are going to be very interesting. But they can’t afford to switch off for a moment, and all the fans can do is hope the team has learned their lesson on what happens when that intangible momentum is given up. Something like a 4-2-3-1 also seems like a lesson learned at this point, too, so it’ll be interesting to see how Pineda decides to work up a plan for the post season.
As a side note, I’m personally incredibly happy Atlanta came back and won another so quickly after the last Miami match, because the article I wrote on that one initially didn’t age well thanks to Toronto. Y’know, street cred and all.