Atlanta United welcomed fans back to Mercedes-Benz Stadium with their first win of the MLS season on Saturday night. The Five Stripes topped Chicago Fire, 3-1, in an emotional evening for everyone. Gabriel Heinze’s first league win as Atlanta boss wasn’t the prettiest or most dominant display from his side, but we saw some real progress made in the early stages of a new era. Here are a few thoughts on what was an electric and special night in the Benz.
It’s been an extremely long road, but this match really felt like the return of so many aspects that Atlanta United is known for. First and foremost, the fans being allowed back in the building was massive. While the capacity limit was only 50%, the atmosphere was incredible from the first minute to the last. The moment Josef Martinez came on, it sounded as if there was another 73,000 MLS record attendance in the stands. To have fans back cheering on every moment of the match is truly beautiful to see.
On the field it wasn’t extremely pretty or dominant, but Atlanta United were clearly the better team on the night and deserved the three points they eventually received. The attacking play overall was adequate and showed signs of improvement, while the defense was a little more shaky than previous matches where they kept a clean sheet. Perhaps on a more unlucky night the result is different as Chicago hit the post three times and could’ve turned the score line on its head. Nevertheless, the numbers point strongly in favor of Atlanta in the chances created department.
Once Josef made his way on the field and the crowd was buzzing, it really began to feel like 2017/2018 a bit. The counter-attack game was lightning quick and almost ended the match very soon after Josef’s introduction. If not for Jake Mulraney’s questionable finishing in front of goal, the roof may have been blown off. We really haven’t had that type of feverish excitement much in the last couple years.
A Big Step Forward
While winning is always fun and having the fans back in attendance is awesome, perhaps the most exciting takeaway from the night is how dangerous and lively Josef Martinez looked in his 23-minute cameo. The hesitation to get physical seemed minimal at most and the fire felt like it was back. He was buzzing all over the field, demanding the ball, linking up play, and even trying to get on the end of crosses. He had a few half-chances that were either blocked or saved, but the Josef we all know and adore is starting to emerge once again. The process was never going to happen over night, but this performance was far and away his most positive since his return. Hopefully his storybook return goal moment isn’t far away and soon behind it should be some consistency. The sooner Josef finds his way back into the starting lineup on a regular basis, the sooner this team can return to the elite class of MLS.
Steve Buscemi holding a skateboard couldn’t have said it better himself. Gabriel Heinze is indeed the vibe we’ve wanted for so long. It’s unbelievably refreshing to see this kind of emotion and desire from your manager. A manager is for all intents and purposes an extension of the club. Usually a team reflects the characteristics of its leaders. Heinze’s jump of elation after Emerson Hyndman’s match-clinching goal is how we all felt. To have someone like Heinze who lives and dies with every ebb and flow of the match just like the diehard supporters watching along is fantastic. That energy rubs off on everyone.
The players confirmed as much after the win. Both Jake Mulraney and Ezequiel Barco admitted that last year the team might have collapsed if it gave up a goal right after halftime. Instead, this team didn’t let it phase them, kept playing their style of play, and came out on top. That’s the imprint that Gabriel Heinze is leaving on this squad and it’s only going to intensify as the season goes along. If that doesn’t fill you with excitement then there’s probably something wrong with you.