5 Five Stripes Thoughts: Atlanta United cannot let Sporting Kansas City beat them twice

Mike Conti
May 11, 2018 - 12:52 pm
Atlanta United defender Sal Zizzo

Courtesy Atlanta United

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A grueling test of three matches in eight days for Atlanta United is nearly complete, but the final game may be the toughest Sunday night in sultry Orlando.  The difficulty of that match has no doubt been compounded by the suspension of Brad Guzan, who was red carded in the first half of Wednesday’s 2-0 defeat to Sporting Kansas City.

Wednesday’s match at Mercedes Benz was frustrating for Atlanta United’s players and supporters, but there’s no time to dwell on that now.  It is imperative that the Five Stripes don’t fall victim to any kind of hangover that would allow Sporting Kansas City to essentially beat them twice.  Here are my five thoughts on Wednesday’s match, and what lay ahead Sunday night.

A result was stolen from Atlanta United Wednesday, but not from whom you may think.  I will get in to the officiating controversies in a moment.  But the burglar Wednesday night was Sporting Kansas City keeper Tim Melia, who made three brilliant saves in the final 15 minutes, including two on free kicks by the usually precise Kevin Kratz.  Frankly, this could have been a 3-2 Atlanta United victory if not for those saves.  Melia gave an up-close demonstration on why he was the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2017. 

Now, the officiating rulings.  There were four major calls in the match, all of which went against Atlanta United.  The red card to Brad Guzan in the 34th minute was absolutely the correct call.  It appeared that Gerso Fernandes may have been offside when he scored his goal in the 87th minute, but a still photograph made available after the match proved that call was correct.  A gif emerged after the match that appeared to show Matt Besler with a handball in the penalty box on Romario Williams’ rebound of a Kratz free kick.  Another angle from behind the goal seems to show that may not have been a hand ball, but it is less conclusive. 

Josef Martinez’s goal being waved off on video review in the sixth minute is the most debatable of the four rulings.  It sure looked like Jimmy Medranda was making a deliberate play on the ball with Martinez in an offside position.  Referee Mark Geiger’s explanation to a pool reporter after the match was cloudy, at best.  My issue is not with the ruling, but the application of the Video Assisted Referee.  Under the law, VAR is to only be used in the event of a “clear and obvious error” by the referee.  How clear and obvious was the error if Geiger let the goal stand initially, and the Assistant Referee kept his flag down?  Regardless, nothing can be done now.  These things happen in sports, now it’s time to move on.

Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is making a case for All Star Game inclusion.  It feels like the red card in Minneapolis was a big turning point for LGP, who had another outstanding match Wednesday (and, in fact, was our man of the match).  He had two big tackles in the first half to deny developing scoring opportunities.  He frustrated five-goal-scorer Johnny Russell all night.  And finally, he set up a free kick that could have tied the match in the second half.  Atlanta United defended as well as they could whilst down a man Wednesday night, and Gonzalez Pirez was a big reason for that.

How big of a concern is fitness for Sunday?  On one hand, Guzan’s red card may have been a blessing in disguise because Tito Villalba only had to play a half hour on Wednesday.  He should be fresh for Sunday, as will be Julien Gressel, who didn’t play at all against Sporting Kansas City.  If healthy, Franco Escobar and Chris McCann will both be coming off a week’s worth of rest on Sunday.  Barco is young at age 19 and has had a relatively light workload since the season began.  The concern, in my opinion, is Almiron, who was running all over the place for the full 90 minutes on Wednesday.  Almiron is at 898 minutes already, not inclusive of a Paraguay National Team match a few weeks ago.  I will be curious to see if Almiron starts on Sunday or if he is used as a substitute.

The match in Orlando is not a “must win.”  Even though points were dropped at home on Wednesday, I really feel there’s no such thing as a “must win” match until a team needs a victory to keep their season going.  It certainly is an important match; but, win or lose, Atlanta United will likely be no lower than second on the Eastern Conference table at the end of Sunday night.  They’re only one point out of the Supporters’ Shield lead and Sunday will essentially be their match in hand over Kansas City.  From an emotional standpoint, this is a huge match for Orlando City.  They have Atlanta United in their park twice this season, and they have won six matches in a row.  Indeed, the Lions are the hottest team in MLS at the moment.  But we’re only a quarter of the way through the season.  Each club will have plenty of time to make up for whatever comes of Sunday’s match.

I am not worried about Paul Christensen.  If Atlanta United’s back line does its job, Christensen hopefully will not have a lot of work Sunday night (assuming he is the starter).  On four different occasions this season, Atlanta United has won a match in which Brad Guzan has had to make only one save.  I thought Christensen made a big save early in the second half Wednesday, which should give him confidence.  His distribution was not perfect, but still was adequate.  The bigger question is whom will be the second goalkeeper.  Alec Kann and Mitch Hildebrand are both nursing injuries, and Nicholas Caraux would require the use of an International Spot.  A pool keeper could also be in play.  Regardless, if Atlanta United continues to defend as well as they have since the Houston match, Christensen should be fine.