5 Five Stripes Thoughts: Atlanta United can prove its championship form in Toronto

Mike Conti
October 22, 2018 - 10:32 am
Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan

© Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

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Atlanta United beat Chicago Fire 2-1 Sunday to maintain control of the Shield.  But the only way they could have won it in their home stadium was to have Red Bulls lose at the same time in Philadelphia.  Not only did Red Bulls not lose, but their 1-0 victory over Philadelphia Union puts Atlanta United in the position where they will almost certainly have to win in Toronto to claim their first trophy.

I feel this creates an opportunity that can be relished for Atlanta United, not a trap that can be feared.  Here are my five thoughts on Sunday's win over Chicago Fire, and the week ahead in Toronto:

1. The best team in the league should be able to get a win in Toronto.  And I say that even with the statuses of Miguel Almiron and Tito Villalba cloudy at best for this match.  Toronto FC has lost four in a row and six of their last eight.  They are playing without Jozy Altidore and Victor Vazquez.  They lost 2-0 at Montreal on Sunday, with VAR wiping out a third goal and showing signs of a club that was merely playing out the string.  Simply put, if Atlanta United wants to be known as the best team in the league, these are the types of matches elite teams win.  The Five Stripes are in this position partially because they could not close out a game against Toronto on August 4, giving up a goal to Tousaint Ricketts in stoppage time that cost them a valuable two points.  It's time for Atlanta United to silence the doubters.  Here is their opportunity.

2. Credit to Atlanta United for a gritty win, but it was definitely not their best.  I think a lot of this comes down to "new faces in new places" with Almiron and Villalba out.  Gressel assumed the role of central attacking midfielder for much of the match and seemed uncomfortable in that role.  Ezequiel Barco and Chris McCann seemed to lack chemistry on the left wing, which is understandable because they have not played together in those roles much this year.  Andrew Carleton had moments of promise, including a beautiful first half chip from the right wing that nearly found itself in the back of the net, but it also felt like he had his hands full defensively.  Sunday's game magnified how important Miguel Almiron is to this team.  The fact that they won a game without him is promising.

3. The situation at left wingback should soon be a lot more clear.  I think Tata Martino was hesitant to give George Bello the start against Chicago Fire because he had just played this past Wednesday in England (against Russia for the USMNT U17's).  Greg Garza was included in the 18 but was not subbed on, which is also understandable seeing as how he just recently returned to training.  I have to think that Garza and Bello's inclusions in the 18 were not accidental, and that they are both match fit.  I would not be surprised if Garza got the start in Toronto.  If he is someone that Tata Martino needs to lean on in the playoffs, he has got to get some match time under his belt before November 4.

4. Brad Guzan kept the day from being a disaster.  After Franco Escobar scored in the 9th minute, Atlanta United very narrowly avoided a Michael Parkhurst own goal when Guzan dove to his right to parry the ball away from the right post.  Had that gone in, we could have been looking at a draw and the loss of control over the Supporters' Shield.  Guzan is credited with only one save in the box score, but in reality he did so much more than that.  And his performance becomes even more impressive when considering he had to play a full 90 minutes for the USMNT against Peru earlier in the week.  Guzan is the player I think we most take for granted on Atlanta United.  He may have saved the day on Sunday.  (For the record: I am also not sure Chicago's goal was onside.  I am baffled at how the video monitor was not checked by Referee Drew Fischer).

5. There's no way to guess Atlanta United's Conference Semifinal opponent.  Incredibly, nobody in the East has yet clinched their seed, and Columbus Crew are now in serious danger of missing the playoffs after giving up a late goal to lose in Orlando Sunday.  Columbus is home to Minnesota on Decision Day, while Montreal is at New England. Columbus gets in with a win, but a draw may not get them there.  Atlanta United, if they win the Shield, plays the lowest surviving seed from the knockout games.  That could be anyone from Philadelphia to Columbus to Montreal to DC United.  It's worth noting that Atlanta United is 8-1-0 against that group this year.  They may also get drawn in to a conference semifinal against New York City, who is limping badly after another decisive loss Sunday, this time to DC.  If you want me to make an educated guess, I think we're going to be in Washington DC on November 4.  But so much can happen over these next 11 days.