Atlanta United opened their 2022 MLS season with an inspiring 3-1 win over Sporting Kansas City in front of a raucous Mercedes-Benz Stadium crowd. The Five Stripes showed off their new-look formation and mentality and left everyone impressed with how entertaining of a match they played. Here are a few thoughts on a near-perfect beginning to what’s looking like a promising season.
The Press Is Back
You absolutely love to see it. After several seasons of various three and five-at-the-back formations, the return of the 4-2-3-1 brought with it a menacing press that caused SKC tons of headaches. This was clear to see on the opening goal of the match as Atlanta won the ball back high up the field and hit on a lightning-quick counter that sprung Luiz Araujo for the finish.
Without drawing too many lazy comparisons to the “good ol’ days,” it’s undeniable that this is a facet of Atlanta United’s mindset that we haven’t seen much of in quite a while. It was incredibly refreshing to see the players working hard up the field doing whatever they could to cause havoc. It made for a stunningly frantic first half that was truly pulsating to watch. Then, once the two-goal lead was secured, they took their foot off the pedal just enough to ensure a more sturdy defense. If they can sustain this mentality and consistently press teams into making mistakes in dangerous areas, it’s going to be a really fun season for the Five Stripes.
It Might Be Josef Acceptance Time
This is not a pessimistic thought. But it may be time to accept that Josef Martinez is who he’s going to be for possibly the rest of his career. While we all want to see 2017-19 Josef back, I’m just not sure his explosiveness will ever reach that level again. And that’s okay. What he is now is perfectly capable of making a big impact, as he showed in this match. I believe the days of him scoring 25 goals per season may be gone. What we see now may be a 15 goal/10 assist type of player. Someone who will do everything asked of him, like be a facilitator, a poacher, and an overall versatile threat.
I still saw comments about Josef not being in peak physical condition despite his very productive output against Sporting. At this point, it’s just hard to see him returning to the same type of player he was at his very peak. But that’s okay as long as he adjusts his mentality and finds other ways to be dangerous. This match is a perfect example of him doing just that. He’s going to be just fine, but it may be time to temper expectations.
Age Is Just A Number
While there were plenty of standout performances for Atlanta on Sunday, perhaps none were as impressive as Ozzie Alonso’s. The veteran free agent signing was brought in to add some valuable leadership and experience. He’s certainly done that. But he’s not here just to be an inspirational asset. The guy can still play soccer really dang well. He had a tremendous debut for the club, breaking up the play and setting the tone in the middle of the park all day. It’s probably too much to expect him to be a 34-match type of contributor at this stage of his career. But to see him have this type of performance is proof that he’s more than just a dose of veteran presence for the side. It was quite the encouraging 90 minutes for the Cuban-American. Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come.
Goal: A Dream Begins
Then on the other end of the age spectrum you have 17-year-old Caleb Wiley who wow’d everyone in his club debut. The highly-touted lefty came off the bench in an attacking role and scored a lovely first career goal. His technical ability to take Marcelino Moreno’s pass in stride and not miss a step was extremely exciting to see, not to mention the composure to slide a finish past the goalkeeper. Obviously it’s important not to get overly expectant of a young kid this early, but it’s hard not to see that he’s got tremendous potential. With Andrew Gutman looking like an all-MLS caliber left back, Wiley is in a great position to continue getting rotational minutes off the bench and the occasional spot start. That’s the perfect scenario for someone at this stage of his career. You have to like what you see so far and hopefully we get to see a lot more of that potential this season.
A Juggernaut In Waiting
After this impressive showing, you have to be extremely optimistic at what Atlanta United could become this season once the roster reaches full strength. Adding in Thiago Almada, Marcelino Moreno, Alan Franco, Santiago Sosa, Franco Ibarra, and Emerson Hyndman into this already dynamic mix is a mouth-watering prospect. Of course many things can go wrong throughout a season. But as it looks now, there’s no reason this team can’t go on to do big things if they continue to implement Gonzalo Pineda’s instructions as well as they did in the opening match. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been this excited about Atlanta United in quite some time. As an old friend says, them Five Stripes is hell.