5 Five Stripes Thoughts: Could Atlanta United be peaking at the exact right moment?

Mike Conti
November 13, 2018 - 12:15 pm
Atlanta United midfielder Miguel Almiron

© Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

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With the season on the line Sunday, Atlanta United played like the champions we have hoped they are.  Now, their biggest challenge in club history awaits, as they try to earn the right to host the MLS Cup Final.

For the moment, let’s savor the historic accomplishment.  In only its second year of existence, Atlanta United has earned a trip to the Eastern Conference Final.  They did so with another smothering effort Sunday to defeat New York City 3-1, and 4-1 by aggregate.  New York City’s only goal of the series was a bad bounce off a set piece that was deflected in by Maxime Chanot.  Outside of that, the Five Stripes were poised and controlled defensively, and had no issue ceding 69 percent possession to their opponent to earn the victory.

Here are my five thoughts on Sunday’s victory, and the road ahead for Atlanta United:

1. This is the best this club has played over two consecutive matches in its history.  We debated this subject at length on the full time report; but, for my money, Atlanta United has never played better over a two match stretch since they came into existence, especially when one considers the stakes.  They followed up a stunning defensive performance at Yankee Stadium, where they held New York City without a single shot on target, with an onslaught in the first 42 minutes Sunday that produced two goals and nearly a third.  NYCFC may have been fading down the stretch, but they were still one of the top five or six clubs in MLS this season.  This high level of play should give Atlanta United supporters a lot of confidence going in to the East Final.

2. Miguel Almrion’s name will be etched into Atlanta sports playoff folklore.  I don’t know if any of us really truly know just how pain Almiron is playing through right now, but the fact that he was able to grit his teeth and give his club 84 minutes and a goal on Sunday is going to place him among Atlanta’s greatest ever playoff performers, in any sport.  To be sure, Atlanta United would not have won this series with Almiron on the sideline.  His commitment to putting in the work to make his recovery as quickly as possible should not be overlooked.

3. Give Scott Donnelly an assist for Miles Robinson’s development.  If there are any remaining questions on the value of having a second team playing in the USL, they should now be answered with Robinson stepping in to the lineup with the poise of a veteran Sunday and shutting down David Villa and New York City.  Robinson was one of ATL UTD 2’s best players over the final month of the season, as they earned results against some of the best opponents USL had to offer.  Somewhere in the building Sunday, ATL UTD 2 manager Scott Donnelly must have been smiling.  Think of how much vital seasoning Andrew Carleton, George Bello, Robinson, and even Alec Kann have gotten in USL this season.  It’s not all about the wins and losses in USL, it’s about getting the vital game minutes.

4. Hopefully, the International Break does not hurt this club’s momentum.  Everyone is rightly concerned about the looming trips to Europe for Darlington Nagbe and Brad Guzan, who both turned in man of the match caliber performances on Sunday.  I’m more concerned about the disruption the International Break will cause to the momentum Atlanta United has built over the last two weeks.  New York Red Bulls looked good Sunday night against Columbus Crew, but only after a very shaky first leg.  There was no such unsteadiness from Atlanta United in the conference semifinal.  If looking at the glass half full, the full week of regeneration should hopefully help Almiron, Jeff Larentowicz and Tito Villalba work their way back from their respective injuries.

5. A chance to play Red Bulls should be relished, not dreaded.  Obviously, an East Final matchup against Columbus Crew would have provided Atlanta United with a less complicated path to the MLS Cup Final.  They were 2-0-0 against the Crew this year with a plus-four goal difference.  They were 0-2-0 this year against Red Bulls with a minus-four goal difference.  As far as I’m concerned, if Atlanta United wins the Cup, nobody will be able to call it a fluke.  They will have had to go through a gauntlet of New York City, New York Red Bulls, and then either Portland or Kansas City.  It’s a brutal path, but one that, if solved, will rightly place Atlanta United as perhaps the greatest MLS Cup champion in the history of the league.  With that in mind, this is an opportunity that should be appreciated, not feared.  Nothing we’ve seen in the last two weeks makes me think Atlanta United won’t be able to at least trade punches with Red Bulls.  They will be the underdog.  Sometimes teams play better in that role as well.  All the pressure is on the Red Bulls.​

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