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Five thoughts on Atlanta United’s heartbreaking draw vs. New York Red Bulls

Close, but no cigar.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Death, taxes, and Atlanta United failing to take three points from the New York Red Bulls.

This one might be the most frustrating for Atlanta fans out of the six regular season matches between the two sides. After Josef Martinez’s stoppage-time goal appeared to be the winner, Bradley Wright-Phillips struck for a goal of his own to make it 3-3. It’s one of those draws that feels like a loss, a big missed opportunity for the Five Stripes in front of nearly 70,000 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and a few million more in a plush post-Women’s World Cup timeslot on FOX. Here’s five thoughts from a gut-punch on Sunday:

Justin Meram is good

One of the bright spots is another good shift put in by Justin Meram. I honestly didn’t know what to expect when Atlanta United acquired Meram several weeks ago: the 30-year-old had scored 13 goals in 2017, but following a failed stint in Orlando before returning to Columbus and his subsequent trade to Atlanta, the hope was that he’d take advantage of the change of scenery. Since arriving in Atlanta, though, he has quickly integrated himself into the attack, scoring 4 goals in 7 matches with the club across all competitions. His latest one came on a pretty bit of combination play with Pity Martinez that saw the Michigan native beat his man one-on-one and have a clear path to fire one past Luis Robles just after the 10-minute mark. Meram mentioned postgame that since he’s been here, it’s been a matter of learning the tendencies of his teammates and being ready to make the most of the chances he is given, and so far, he’s done that for the most part.

Pity Martinez’s struggles continue

Martinez’s assist on Meram’s goal was one moment of positivity for the Argentinian in a match that didn’t see him create many others. It ended with him giving way for Brandon Vazquez after 63 minutes, which (with all respect in the world to Brandon Vazquez) doesn’t look good from an optics standpoint.

Afterwards, Frank de Boer had some pointed criticism for the big-ticket signing, unhappy with the level of play that the 26-year-old was providing in a match that needed more.

You saw, Brandon (Vazquez) came in and it was a different story. I want not 10, or 9, or 8 men who work very hard, everybody has to work hard, especially in these kinds of games. These are very difficult games. I had the feeling that we have to win those duels, and that is also why I put Jeff Larentowicz in. After we put Jeff in, we get chance after chance. And you can think, ‘Hey, that’s defensively,’ but first you have to win those duels, and we did after that.

I’ve long thought that eventually, Pity Martinez will come good; he struggled with living up to expectations when he first signed for River Plate from Huracán, his boyhood club, in 2015. I won’t even pretend to compare the rabid South American soccer culture to the one here in North America, but when you’re a fan of a team that spent over US$15 million for a player, you’re not expecting just 2 goals and 3 assists through 22 matches, especially with players brought on for cheaper across the league (Alejandro Pozuelo? Nani?). Hopefully he blossoms into the style of player Ezequiel Barco has become in 2019, but for now, frustration among the fanbase (and technical staff) is starting to grow.

The King is back

I can only shudder at the thought of not having Josef Martinez in the lineup against the Red Bulls. The reigning MLS MVP’s return to the XI after his time at Copa America saw him pick up where he left off, winning and converting a penalty to equalize the match before scoring a trademark headed goal off a nice feed from Franco Escobar. Check out this little scrappy exchange after the penalty, where you don’t have to have great lipreading skills to see what he said to Luis Robles:

Martinez is now up to 12 goals in MLS play, seven of those coming in his last four appearances. It looks like he’s heating up, and if Carlos Vela does challenge that goal scoring record, the Venezuelan is going to have something to say about it first.

Not good enough

Fortunately, Atlanta United didn’t fall victim to an early goal this match. That would have been great if it didn’t give up a stoppage-time goal to Bradley Wright-Phillips to be denied all three points. No matter who you point to, someone didn’t do their job on defense - which has been happening at an alarming rate lately: Atlanta have allowed 12 goals over its last four matches. If it seems like that’s not happened a whole lot in its short history, you’re right, and even with Atlanta’s slow start to the MLS season, at least it wasn’t getting gashed defensively the way it has recently. It’s a problem that needs to be fixed quickly, or the club will really end up paying the piper in the standings.

It’s a rivalry

Although MLS will try its hardest to make Atlanta United and Orlando City a rivalry, the best ones are those that develop organically. It seems as if every time Atlanta and the Red Bulls meet, there’s an edge, and this was no different: plenty of fouls (38), post-whistle extracurriculars, and even a red card for Jeff Larentowicz (only twice out of six times these teams have met in the regular season has it ended 11v11). One can only hope these two meet in the postseason, where there’s sure to be plenty more fireworks.