Here is a review of the Atlanta United season, a preview of their Eastern Conference final against the New York Red Bulls, and a suggestion as to why this might be the end of an era.
Tata Martino is gone after this season. Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez will likely follow. Atlanta United has to do some shopping for new players, and a new manager. The Five Stripes have been flying high lately, but the future promises nothing. Atlanta United has to win the MLS Cup or this two year honeymoon period will be all but over.
Atlanta United has shown all season, except the opening weekend, that the squad has the quality and ideas in the attacking third to have a great cup-winning season. But in the last couple of weeks of the regular season, Martino’s team lacked the intensity and urgency to bring home the Supporters’ Shield. Was this a tactical manoeuver gone bad by Martino, as some choices were suspect? Or did the players squander the shield? To some, it may not count as much, so the comparisons are flimsy, but someone in Atlanta 28-3’d away the Shield as much as the New York Red Bulls won it.
But Atlanta had a shot, and now host the first leg of the MLS Conference Finals on November 25 against those very Red Bulls. And if all goes well, they will host the MLS Cup Final. How did Atlanta United find itself with such a winning formula so soon? Give the front office all the credit if that’s your thing, but Martino is the tip of the spear.
Coaching, leadership, and the offensive catalyst
Tata Martino won Coach of the Year by constantly getting his choices right, before and during the game. He gets a pay raise and a new challenge outside of MLS next year. Unless the Red Bulls pull a Red Wedding in the MLS Eastern Conference Final, Martino will leave a near deity in Atlanta. Win the Cup, and he may get a statue. Martino helped select the proper players for his system, which has been one of the most pleasing and successful to watch, and has mastered it, seeing his team sweep through MLS.
Ask the over 1,000,000 fans that went through the Mercedes-Benz Stadium doors.
Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron are fetching the highest dollar amounts in the rumor pages and combined to bag more goals than any other pairing in MLS. Both should make the MLS Team of the Season. Martinez had 31 goals, with 10 game winners. He did convert eight penalty kicks, as Atlanta were usually threatening the opponent’s keeper area. Martinez also added six assists, showing an unselfish nature that some forwards lack. And Martinez was nothing if not prolifically efficient. His 31 goals came on only 97 shots, 56 of which troubled the keeper or hit the net. No wasteful Row Z souvenirs twice a game for Martinez.
Almiron, meanwhile, served up 14 assists and celebrated his 12 delightful goals, but it did take him 132 shots, with only 51 on target, to do so. Almiron is best served orchestrating the attack as soon as the ball crosses midfield, instead of waiting near the top of the box or on the last defender. Almiron with the ball centrally, 40 yards out, can be dangerous. Add Martinez and Hector Villalba running the channels and the attack is one of the very best in the league.
Julian Gressel is beloved for his deep-lying play-making and grit. He wins balls, and then flies down wings and channels with purpose. Gressel matched Almiron with 14 assists and found himself with four goals on his season’s stat sheet. Villalba was always in dangerous areas, pressing high and wide to find seven goals and nine assists in his many starts.
Martino’s teams controlled the midfield tempo in most games, even as they played a bait-then-batter-the-opposition-on-the-counter style. Somehow, after allowing a team the ball, Atlanta’s coordinated press won the ball and, within moments, or a couple touches, the Five Stripes scoring trio would have the ball in their favored positions, if not already in the net.