Atlanta United fought Inter Miami to a 2-0 win Sunday afternoon as the Five Stripes returned to MLS play with a lineup that was essentially unchanged from their starters against Pachuca earlier in the week. They emerged from the locker room flying high as the attack quickly found its rhythm similar to how it had early in the AmFam Cup. Josef Martinez and Luiz Araujo were able to connect as the Venezuelan found himself driving towards goal just outside of the penalty box when he laid it off back to the Brazilian who drove every ounce of his cannon left leg through the ball, curling a beautiful shot just outside of goalkeeper Drake Callender’s reach.
Before long Miami found a red card, thanks in part to Phil Neville’s misconstrued notion that they were playing 2021 Atlanta United where a team could stop every Atlanta United attack by fouling their attacking midfielder. Marcelino Moreno got hacked, chopped, shoved, and elbowed in every feasible way in this match, but Miami’s insistence on fouling him led to Jean Mota being sent off fairly early. The Atlanta attack continued, but it wasn't until the second half that the Five Stripes were able to secure an insurance goal. Marcelino Moreno found himself at the top of his defensive box and was able to bring a ball down, stand up what would’ve easily been a foul, catch his balance and fight his way down the touch line into the final third. He played the ball ahead to Caleb Wiley who took a shot that deflected off the goalkeeper and rolled to Luiz Araujo, who then played it back to a menacing Josef Martinez who put the ball into the top of the net over Callender’s head.
Needless to say, this was an important win in so many ways for Atlanta United. They needed three points at home before heading off on a three match away series against Toronto and both New York (New Jersey) teams. Notably, the Five Stripes had their first clean sheet in 8 matches going back to the U.S. Open Cup match against Chattanooga F.C., which should be credited to Alan Franco, George Campbell, and Rocco Rios Novo. Rocco got his first MLS start and looked comfortable in every way with the ball at his feet, playing at times 40 yards out from goal as an extra center back. Alan Franco had his best match of the season shutting down Leo Campana, and George Campbell continued his success from the AmFam Cup holding down some strong challenges in the box.
The Eastern Conference race is tighter than ever right now, as Atlanta sits just one point out of the playoff line with at least one, if not two, games in hand on everyone above them except NYCFC. While the road ahead is going to be tough, the Five Stripes could be looking at an entirely different place in the standings if they can bring home some points through the next three matches.
The post-match press conference was full, as we heard from assistant coach Rob Valentino, Josef Martinez, Luiz Araujo, Caleb Wiley, and the ‘stache himself, Rocco Rios Novo. Take a look at what they had to say about the game and the team moving forward from here.
Assistant Coach Rob Valentino:
On the overall performance of today’s game and the two yellow cards:
“The two yellow cards were relatively quick. I thought the game was looking like how we thought it might be. From a playing standpoint, it looked like we were in a positive way. Then after that, I think at times we can maybe manage the tempo a little bit better to kind of help dictate our way in the way we would like to play but I’m happy with the performance.”
On Rocco Ríos Novo:
“He gets a clean sheet in his first game. I hope they all stay like that but he was comfortable. He looked in control. He didn’t look like he had a ton to do but he did, and you know, we know Rocco for his personality and for what he is, and he brings a lot to the group. And you know, he doesn’t show any bit of his age and I’m very happy for his performance.”
On having young players:
“It’s great. I mean, I think sometimes we sit down, we think about what you were doing at that age. Like I think about it like that, like they are miles ahead of where I was. Maturity wise, and in their own careers in general. They are in a pro-environment, and not only do they have to perform, but mature in their own ways and I think it’s good to see that we have a youth that is actually putting together performances and can play at this level. They get their opportunities that they take and do well with them. So, I’m pleased for all those guys and the whole team.”
On the team having control in the game:
“I never felt all the way in control. I think sometimes maybe that’s our way to have or add a little bit of chaos. We open things up and we transition. But yeah, I felt like there was some moments where we did control the game and I think it’s a good feeling that the players feel comfortable, especially on possessions that they feel like they can dictate the tempo. For me, it’s important that we put together a good performance and build on to win the game. We also make sure that we pay the fans back. They pay their hard earned money to come watch us and we want to make sure that we always put a performance together and strong victories.”
On Ronaldo Cisneros and Josef Martinez’s connection:
“Ronaldo is a great kid, and he is showing that he can play multiple positions, which I think will make him more attractive to keep him on the field and get him in good positions to help the team. And I think that, you know, Josef helps him. You can see that he is kind of looking up to him and it’s a good thing.”
Atlanta United forward Josef Martínez
On the victory and scoring his goal
“First, very happy. Those were three points that we had been searching for for a while. Maybe we deserved them. Today we played a game, maybe not the best, the important thing is little by little everyone is doing their job and the three points are important. And beyond the chemistry that there is, it also could be better so little by little hopefully those of us in the attack can be better.”
On how his goal felt
“It’s always nice to score goals. And more when the game is still 1-0. But the important thing is to little by little get rhythm back after being out for a long two months. The most important thing is that nobody got injured. We have to recover because now we have a very difficult game in Toronto and three games that are going to be tough but we’re happy, mostly for the guys here in the locker room who are tired and that means they put in a great effort.”
On playing with a player like Ronaldo Cisneros and if that helps him
“Ronaldo has a particular way of playing that helps us a lot. His movement on the field, his effort on the field, unfortunately he couldn’t score a goal but little by little he’s also winning his place. He’s an important player for us and I think he helps me when I have to be in the box because playing with one center forward is much harder than playing with two, as the center backs have more people to worry about inside the box. Little by little we’re getting to know each other, not just him but with the other teammates.”
On how Josef’s feeling and getting back to the level he was at in 2017-18
“I’m feeling much better. Obviously, I have to get my rhythm because I was out for a long time, then after getting back to practically feeling good, to have another pause. Obviously, I’m feeling much better than before, so I think it helps the way the team is playing and the important thing, as I said, is that all the players finished the game healthy, because that comes before the results, and aside from all that to keep working and hope to get to 100 percent.”
Atlanta United forward Luiz Araújo:
On his relationship with Josef Martinez:
“Very good. I think you guys are seeing the results in the games that we are playing. Today, for each of us to score a goal and get an assist is great. But it’s not just us two, it’s all of our teammates who are doing a great job. Marcelino (Moreno), Ronaldo (Cisneros), and all the guys out there. We are going to continue to try and get better, and I think that relationship is going to grow the more we play together.”
On the upcoming road trip, with three games in a row on the road:
“We are going to continue to keep working for these three important games on the road that we have coming up. I think we are improving, both offensively and defensively, so we just need to continue to try and get better.”
On the youth in the defense today and how impressed he was by their performance:
“We have young guys on the team, but they are here to help us. I was a young player once too, now I’m 26 years old. But all the young guys can help us. In France, we had a very young team but we were able to win the championship. Now the young guys can help us, and the experienced players like myself, Josef and others are here to try and help them however we can.”
Atlanta United defender Caleb Wiley
On how a clean sheet builds confidence for a young back line:
“There’s lots of young guys on this team and that doesn’t scare us. We have lots of veterans on this team that help us get through it, lots of experienced guys. But we’re all in this together and we all go with it and we’re doing well.”
On who was leading and organizing the back line:
“It comes from the back. Rocco [Ríos Novo] helping us, he can see the whole field. I have George [Campbell] to my right side and then Alan [Franco] and then Brooks [Lennon]. It’s all of us communicating with the people in front of us.”
On if he could imagine at the beginning of the season that he’d be the starting left back:
“This is not what I was expecting this early on, but anytime that I get to play with this team is a very special moment. Even to start is even more special. I hope to keep on doing good.”
On what the key for this team is to keep the momentum going:
“Just having the right mindset in each game. I think we still have to work on scoring goals. I think we had some missed opportunities today. There’s a few other things, but I think we’re in the right spot. We’ll keep on going.”
Atlanta United goalkeeper Rocco Rios Novo
On the team’s youth and if this results gives them confidence
“Always. As I have always said it is a young team, but I think that from the youngest to the oldest, they all do their job how it needs to be done. If it continues like this, we are going to continue doing big things and I hope that results continue to be positive. We are going to continue working as a team.”
On how he feels playing in MLS and earning the coach’s trust:
“Extremely happy, I feeel very happy for the victory and for the team’s win. Simply, we are going to continue working for the games that are coming up. We have some difficult away games with Toronto, so we are going to work on that and continue getting better.”
On not showing his age when playing
“I don’t know, with every game I try to play my best and simply do what I love. Which is attack and enjoy the moments and games with the fans.”
It’s worth noting some interesting points here. First, Josef and Rob both mentioning how Cisneros is doing well in his roles either at winger or forward is curious because the club is rapidly arriving at when it needs to make the decision on his loan. He was probably the most underwhelming performer for the Five Stripes this match, but he also provides a “jack-of-all-trades” option for both wings and up front, which increases his value immensely in a team racked with injuries. It also helps that he’s clearly looking to learn from Josef Martinez. Additionally, Rocco Rios Novo’s mention of “doing what he loves and attacking” is very curious. In the short time Rocco has been back at Atlanta this season, there have been multiple reports of the young man loving getting involved in the small side competitions...just not as a goalkeeper. He clearly feels comfortable playing the ball with his feet, and he showed it well in this match against Miami.
At times, Rocco was playing well outside of his penalty box, directing traffic, being vocal, and moving Alan Franco and George Campbell around. He kept the ball well under pressure and did well as a shot stopper, both aspects of this team that have been lacking as of late. To hear from his own mouth that he enjoys attacking should be music to fan’s ears. Why? The type of game Atlanta wants to play starts at the back, and sending the ball blindly forward into oblivion is not the way to control a game. Rocco clearly wants no part of that; his passes were solid, and he played well both from the back and over the top when the scenario warranted. If we take a quick look back to 2018 Atlanta United, the main theme there was that the team shifted forward on offense and back on defense when necessary as an entire unit, and that starts with the goalkeeper.
This match was a solid way to start the second third (?) of the season, but the Five Stripes have to keep up the defensive prowess they showed against Miami if they’re going to have any chance on the road in the next three matches. This match wasn’t perfect, but it was more than enough. To that point, if the club plays their style and sticks to their guns they definitely have a shot at coming home above the playoff line.
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