5 Five Stripes Thoughts: Atlanta United’s attacking play goes unrewarded against Seattle

Mike Conti
July 16, 2018 - 9:36 am
Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez

© Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

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Disappointing.  Frustrating.  Unfulfilling.  Unjust.

All of these words can accurately describe the mood of Atlanta United and its supporters after their 1-1 draw Sunday against Seattle Sounders.  A match where Atlanta United dominated possession (69 percent) and outshot its opponent by more than a two-to-one margin resulted in the Five Stripes giving up two points at home.  And once again, the Video Assisted Referee loomed large in a non-win at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

The draw keeps Atlanta United atop the Supporters’ Shield table for another week, but that lead continues to narrow each week, with New York City and FC Dallas now averaging more points per match than the Five Stripes.  Atlanta United can ill afford to keep dropping points at home if they want to have the right to host the MLS Cup Final.  But, once again, not every element of what happened Sunday was entirely in their control.  Here are my five thoughts on Sunday’s match, and the week ahead:

1. MLS won’t win any casual fans with a match like that. The Seattle Sounders had absolutely no intent on creating goal scoring opportunities Sunday.  They played with nine or ten men behind the ball, and took the air out of the Atlanta United attack by diving and delaying.  Their one goal came on an extremely controversial handball-turned-penalty kick (more on that in a moment).  In short, they played extremely negative soccer.  The timing could not have been worse for MLS, which was hoping for a huge television audience on Fox thanks to the lead-in of the World Cup Final.  In fact, it could end up being the most-watched regular season MLS match in history.  And the Sounders did the league no favor.  For casual soccer fans who were sampling MLS for the first time, the Sounders painted an inaccurate picture of what we usually see on a weekly basis in this league: exciting, attacking, wide open soccer with a high degree of technical skill.  The Sounders played to the opposite extreme, one week after their manager allegedly apologized to New England’s Brad Friedel for playing the same way in a scoreless draw in Foxborough.  Some have argued with me on Twitter that the Sounders owe nothing to MLS, and they got a much-needed road point.  But, getting a draw really doesn’t help Seattle.  They actually LOST ground in the Western Conference playoff race and are now 11 points below the postseason line.

2. This weekend was a huge setback for VAR.  Starting Saturday night in Minneapolis, and continuing Sunday in Atlanta, we saw the most shambolic application of the Video Assisted Referee since the debacles of May 19 and 20.  Here again, the threshold of a “clear and obvious error” was thrown into doubt in a ruling that arguably cost Atlanta United a victory.  In the 45th minute of the first half Sunday, Seattle slow played a set-up for a corner kick, which allowed Video Assistant Referee Alex Chilowicz more than enough time to take a frame-by-frame look at the ball pinballing off Franco Escobar’s shoulder and then possibly his hand.  Watching live, referee Baldomero Toledo did not signal for a penalty; because, watching live, no reasonable person could have concluded that Escobar was intentionally playing his hand to the ball.  Inexplicably, Toledo awarded a penalty after going to the monitor.  Frankly, it is dubious to say that Toledo made a “clear and obvious error” in not awarding the penalty initially.  This is the third time that VAR has cost Atlanta United a victory at home because judgement calls were thrown into question by the VAR.  After six weeks of relative peace and quiet, calls will be renewed this week out of Atlanta and Salt Lake City to take a hard look at the application of video review.  I hope this also renews calls to take all VAR to a central “war room” where a panel of officials can check plays, similar to what was applied in Russia.

3. There’s solace in the number of chances Atlanta United created.  Here again was another non-victory where Atlanta United clearly outplayed its opponent and generated plenty of good scoring opportunities.  For whatever reason, the finishing quality in the attacking third was not the same as it had been in Philadelphia last Saturday.  Some of that may be due to chemistry, which Chris McCann returning to the starting lineup and linking with Almiron down the left wing.  I’ll be curious to see if Eric Remedi will be of assistance if and when he plays next for Atlanta United.  Remedi is known more as a “bowling ball” who will be a physical presence in the midfield, but I have to think that his passing will really help as Darlington Nagbe continues to work his way back from an adducter injury.

4. Yellow cards are adding up.  Rightly or wrongly, three more Atlanta United players were booked on Sunday, and now Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Franco Escobar and Romario Williams are all on the yellow card tightrope.  All three will be suspended on their next caution.  And a slew of players including Jeff Larentowicz, Miguel Almiron and Michael Parkhurst are now two cautions away from a suspension.  It’s starting to feel likely that Atlanta United could soon be in a suspension-induced lineup scramble unless these players can earn fair play incentives.  This could bring up the prospect of returning to a 3-5-2, or maybe even forcing Larentowicz into the back line with Remedi playing in front of him if Gonzalez Pirez or Escobar should be lost.  I thought the yellow to Escobar for dissent after the VAR went against Atlanta United late in the first half Sunday was ridiculous, for what it’s worth.

5. Nothing can be taken for granted in Saturday’s match with DC.  Atlanta United had full control of their visitors from DC on March 10, and won 3-1 with Brad Guzan’s clean sheet spoiled in the final minutes.  DC United is more multi-dimensional now with Wayne Rooney in the fold (had an assist on Saturday) and there is a clear path forward for DC United to make a playoff run.  Don’t laugh.  They still have 20 matches to play, almost all of them at home, and they’re 13 points out of a playoff berth.  Yamil Asad scored the first goal in Audi Park history last Saturday and it’s hard to imagine he will be stifled the same way he was on March 10 at Mercedes Benz Stadium.  This is another match where, on paper, Atlanta United should get the three points.  But it feels like every opponent is treating a trip to the Benz like a trip to the MLS Cup Final.  Atlanta United must to a better job at teams that play a loaded box against them (44 crosses against Seattle was way too many), though I have a gut feeling DC United will try to be a little more wide open on the road this week.​