1. The bigger picture
The Five Stripes are at a huge advantage heading into Sunday’s return leg against NYCFC. Not only did they find a way to win in the Bronx, but they scored an away goal in the process. Now an Atlanta win or draw will secure a spot for Atlanta in the conference finals.
There are other big takeaways from Atlanta’s victory as well. Miguel Almiron returned from injury and played the entire first half. Hector Villalba also returned from injury, although he had to be subbed off before the game ended. Greg Garza made his first start since May 20, and Ezequiel Barco logged his first career MLS playoff minutes. All of these players make significant contributions and their returns are important for the team.
We’ll start with Almiron and his performance. There are two ways to analyze his play in the first half; there’s the eye test and there’s what the box score says. Based on the eye test, there was a lot left to be desired by Almiron. At times he looked like his usual self, and other times he looked timid. Every time he fell to the ground Atlanta fans held their breath, hoping he wasn’t injured again. The box score says he performed well. He completed 15 of 20 passes, including one key pass in the early stages of the game. He also logged two tackles and a recovery.
Villalba came on for the second half in place of Almiron. His eye test was not good, as Villalba looked unfit and slower than usual. His speed and technique on the ball usually lead to game-changing moments for the Five Stripes, but that was missing on Sunday night. Even more alarming is that Martino elected to sub on Barco in place of Villalba in the last ten minutes of the match.
Garza looked fit throughout the night, despite getting pretty beat up by the NYCFC players. However, most of Atlanta players took some sort of hit on Sunday night so Garza was no exception. Barco had a solid cameo, with a very good pass put into the box on a freekick.
In the bigger picture, Atlanta is set up for success during the return leg. They have the away goal advantage (for the time being), confidence after a gritty win, and players becoming fit at the right time and logging important game minutes.