5 Five Stripes Thoughts: All questions answered, few doubts remain after a suffocation in The Bronx

Mike Conti
November 05, 2018 - 8:35 am
Atlanta United midfielder Miguel Almiron

© Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK CITY — So much for the notion that Atlanta United lacks toughness. That they shrink in the big moments. That they are ill-equipped to make a deep playoff run.

Atlanta United emphatically disproved all of those theories in 90 minutes of suffocating soccer Sunday night. And their 1-0 win over New York City has them squarely in the driver’s seat to win their first ever playoff series.

This wasn’t Atlanta United’s prettiest victory of the year, but this win carried overtones of their effort in Minnesota. They found a way to snuff out attack after attack. In Minnesota, they did it while playing down a man. In The Bronx, they did it on a narrow, tight pitch that has been kryptonite to visiting MLS clubs all year.

Here are my five thoughts on where Atlanta United stands heading in to the second leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals:

1. Miguel Almiron’s toughness and courage cannot be overstated. It seemed far fetched on October 6 that Almiron would be able to play in Atlanta United’s first postseason match. His body language following his first half injury against New England Revolution was far from encouraging. And yet here was Almiron, doing the less than glorious work on the treadmill, running laps around the training ground, doing whatever it took to be available on Sunday night. He didn’t look hurt or hampered in any way in his 45 minutes of work. His work rate was remarkable again: drawing fouls, getting involved in the tackle, and nearly scoring a goal. Tata Martino responsibly subbed him out at halftime to not put his availability for the second leg in jeopardy. We thought Atlanta United would play better with Almiron. We got confirmation on Sunday.

2. It’s time to trust this team when the going gets tough. Ready for some statistics? Atlanta United is now 11-0-1 in 2018 in the match following a loss or a draw. They are 6-0-1 following a loss. They are 5-0-1 in the next match following the concession of three or more goals. Oh, and they have four straight clean sheets in such matches. In other words, they’ve got this. As negativity swirls outside the clubhouse, the positive club culture built and maintained by Martino persists. Houston was an early-season wake-up call for this team. They went seven matches after that without a loss. A similar response to their loss in Toronto will produce an MLS Cup.

3. I will go to my grave insisting VAR was used incorrectly on the Almiron goal. Was Almiron offside as that play developed Sunday? It was tight, and I’m not sure a replay angle decisively proved it. My issue goes back to four simple words in FIFA’s law on VAR: “clear and obvious error.” There was no such error on the Almiron goal. The Assistant Referee kept his flag down. Not one NYCFC player raised his hand in protest. We have got to get this right, because the use of VAR continues to be inconsistent, leaving fans confused and frustrated. There needs to be consensus on what constitutes “clear and obvious.” For the record, I get the sense that Atlanta United’s players and staff were not nearly as upset at the Almiron ruling as I was.

4. This series was almost (essentially) ended by Greg Garza. His drive from just outside the box in the final moments took a deflection and was destined for the right upper 90 if not for an incredible leaping save from Sean Johnson. A second away goal would have been curtains for NYCFC, and if they make anything out of the Second Leg on Sunday, we will look back on that save as decisive. Johnson played basketball at Brookwood High School, and we got another display of athleticism on that save. Brad Guzan, meanwhile, made several intelligent plays off his line, and a few vital punches, en route to a clean sheet in which he made zero saves.

5. A draconian yellow card rule could be trouble down the road. In the playoffs, an accumulation of two yellow cards means an automatic suspension for the next match, meaning the margin for error is razor thin for players who pick up a single yellow card in a match. Atlanta United’s two best attacking players, Josef Martinez and Tito Villalba, are now on such a tightrope, as is Eric Remedi. They will have to be extraordinarily careful Sunday night in the second leg. Card accumulation will be wiped out, but not until the MLS Cup Final.