5 Five Stripes Thoughts: Kings of the South win again in impressive fashion

Mike Conti
May 14, 2018 - 9:31 am
Atlanta United defenseman Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and defenseman Greg Garza

© Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

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So many things could have gone wrong for Atlanta United Sunday night.  They were playing in easily the most hostile environment they have dealt with all year.  Mother Nature injected a heavy dose of humidity and rain.  And their opponent, Orlando City, had a barrel-fun of confidence after winning six straight matches.  Indeed, it felt like the schedule maker dealt the Five Stripes a cruel blow at the end of a three match in eight day stretch.  But Atlanta United is not an ordinary team, and they came up with an extraordinary result.  Here are my thought's on Sunday's 2-1 victory in Orlando.

1. Atlanta United's massive leap from Year 1 to Year 2 is attributable to one major thing.  For the tenth time in eleven matches, Atlanta United defended beautifully.  The backline of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Michael Parkhurst and Miles Robinson collectively won our Man of the Match award.  With a backup keeper in Alec Kann pushed in to duty, Atlanta United perfectly defended and limited Orlando City to low percentage opportunities.  Gonzalez Pirez continues to be a standout, in my opinion.  Sunday night, he added Dom Dwyer to a growing list of top MLS players that have been totally neutralized by the Five Stripes.

2. We cannot take Darlington Nagbe for granted.  He could have easily been Man of the Match last night.  It seems that the ball is glued to his feet at times.  Here again on Sunday, he was able to create dribbling lanes and squeeze passes through small gaps into the attacking third to set up chances for Almiron, Martinez and Barco.  Statistically, Nagbe doesn't have flashy goal or assist totals.  But the other big reason why Atlanta United has made such a big leap over the span of one offseason, along with the defending, is Nagbe.

3. Greg Garza created the two biggest plays of the match.  Atlanta United went out and played their best first half of the season, and Garza was at the center of the two plays that pretty much ended the match before it started.  The first was in the tenth minute, when he controlled the ball in the left corner of the 18 yard box, was pushed by the throat, and generated a penalty kick.  I've seen some discussion on social media about the validity of a penalty there, but Alan Kelley made the simple (and only) possible call.  If you make contact with a player at his neck, causing him to go down, it is a foul.  And, if that foul is in the penalty box, it's a penalty kick.  Garza also had an assist on the goal by Ezequiel Barco about ten minutes later.  I thought there was a slight chance that Garza would be given the night off on Sunday, but when it was revealed that Franco Escobar and Chris McCann were not yet fully fit, Garza got the opportunity to shine and took advantage of it.

4. Atlanta United's Physio Staff has earned a steak dinner.  As Jason Longshore pointed out in last night's broadcast, situations like Sunday night's match prove why Atlanta United spent so much time in the preseason training without the ball.  The end of this three match in eight day stretch brought them into sultry Central Florida, where the humidity could have sapped the energy out of a poorly conditioned team.  Atlanta United looked way, way fresher than Orlando City in the first half, a stunning indictment of the home team that had an entire week off to prepare.  Several times, I expressed concern that Miguel Almiron would be at risk of running out of gas as he pushes towards 1,000 minutes played on the year.  Once again, Miguel was able to run around the pitch with abandon with no signs of heavy legs.  Tata Martino also deserves a measure of credit for managing his rotation so well, allowing him to have a fresh Julien Gressel Sunday night, and allowing him to bring a super-fresh Tito Villalba on as a sub in the second half.

5. It can no longer be denied by players and coaches.  This is a rivalry.  All four meetings between these clubs have been painfully tense, close games, with Atlanta United getting a pair of one goal wins on the road, and saving two draws at home.  These teams will meet twice more in 2018, and I have no doubt the memories of last night's game will loom large, especially for Orlando City.  The Lions clearly expended a lot of emotional energy in this match, and that was apparent when their players started sniping at each other at times in the late moments.  We've known for some time how these fan bases feel about each other, but we saw that manifest on the pitch in the final ten minutes when a melee nearly broke out, including several players going chest-to-chest and a few even exchanging light shoves.  I don't envy the referee who will be assigned to the next meeting of these clubs on June 30 at Mercedes Benz Stadium, in another nationally televised affair.  I also think Orlando City deserves a ton of credit for creating an atmosphere that is extremely noisy and hostile.  Leaving Orlando City Stadium Sunday night felt like leaving the Superdome:  the first thing you reach for is an Advil.  I also credit Orlando City's management for immediately rebuking the behavior of their supporters who littered the pitch with debris at the end of the match.  That could have created a very dangerous situation and I credit Orlando City for taking action against those responsible.

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