5 Five Stripes Thoughts: Soccer's cruelty on full display in Saturday draw

Mike Conti
August 05, 2018 - 5:45 pm
Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan

© Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

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Soccer is a fun game.  An emotional game.  Often, a spiritual game.  And sometimes, a cruel game.

Saturday's 2-2 draw between Atlanta United and Toronto FC demonstrated that cruelty.  Atlanta United dominated play for long stretches, out-chanced Toronto by a wide margin (22 shots to 7), and looked far superior to a defending MLS Cup champion that was desperate for three points.  And yet, they settled for a draw because of a mistake in added time at the end of the first half, and an iffy goal at the death that could have been scrutinized by VAR.

All of that said, there are still numerous positives for Atlanta United to take away, and the draw does not really hurt them in their overall goal to win the Supporters' Shield.  But they have to stop dropping points at home, which they have now done in seven of 13 matches played at Mercedes Benz Stadium in 2018.  Here are my five thoughts on Saturday's game:

1. Miguel Almiron badly needs a goal.  He had one flat-out stolen from him by Alex Bono in the second half.  In the first half, he was in alone on the keeper, but failed to convert after (I think) he tried to place the ball on his left foot and shot it wide.  Almiron has to be frustrated.  A player of his caliber is likely not used to having so many missed opportunities in a row, and this dates back several weeks now.  I get the feeling that Almiron scoring just one goal will be a gigantic relief for him personally, and could open the floodgates.  To this point, I would not have objected if Almiron had been sent to the penalty spot after Josef Martinez's was fouled in the 53rd minute.  Maybe giving Almiron a chance for a (relatively) straightforward goal from the spot could be the genesis of a big turnaround for him?

2. Josef Martinez's incredible run continues.  Two more goals Saturday has Martinez in position to tie the MLS single season scoring record two weeks from Sunday against Columbus.  (If he continues at his goal per game pace, he'll break the record in Orlando, where I'm sure their fans will stand and respectfully applaud).  Some national "experts" have bemoaned the fact that Atlanta United has taken 12 penalties this year, and Martinez has scored six of his 26 goals from the spot.  In short, people who say that are haters.  To take a penalty, one must earn the penalty, and Saturday was another example of that when Martinez forced Bono to make a split-second decision and take him down in the box.  The play was carefully scrutinized by VAR, which found no clear and obvious error.  The second goal was another demonstration of Josef's ability to finish but also incredible build-up by Atlanta United, including by Michael Parkhurst, who was granted a hockey assist.  It is believed that nobody in the world scored more than 34 goals across 2017-18 (this includes every major league in Europe).  Josef Martinez is now on pace to score 35 goals this season.

3. A tip of the cap to Jeff Larentowicz.  A solid pro who has started in every game this season, Larentowicz was thrown into an unnatural role of center-back Saturday with Franco Escobar suspended.  This worked out ten times better than it did in Houston, the last time Larentowicz was thrust into that spot.  He was calm and strong, and none of Toronto's two goals had anything to do with him.  I initially suspected that Atlanta United's signing of Eric Remedi would allow Larentowicz to get a much-deserved day off.  Now I'm not sure Larentowicz is expendable, even for a game.  Jeff also very nearly scored when he whistled a header over the crossbar in the second half.  Jason and I have said several times that we believe a goal is coming for Larentowicz this year.

4. Alex Bono stole the show.  I feel like we've seen this script several times at Mercedes Benz Stadium (Tim Melia, Zack Steffan, Ryan Meara), but here again we had a game where an opposing goalkeeper made spectacular saves to get his team a result.  Not routine saves, but spectacular saves.  Bono's point-blank stoning of Martinez at the end of the first half, on which he appeared to injure his shoulder, is an MLS Save of the Year candidate.  I've already mentioned his stop on Almiron on the second half.  If not for Bono, this is a 4-2 Atlanta United victory and we are having a much different conversation today.  It's a credit to him and another demonstration of how Atlanta United may have been a tad unlucky Saturday.  It also demonstrates how nothing is a sure thing once the postseason begins.  If Atlanta United draws Columbus in a two-leg playoff, I already wonder and worry about what impact Steffan would have on that series.

5. Calm down with the "this match lost us the Shield" talk.  This seems to be a common refrain on social media every time Atlanta United drops points.  First of all, Atlanta United now actually controls their own destiny to win the Supporters' Shield for the first time in at least several weeks, partially because New York City drew Saturday and FC Dallas lost (to San Jose!) on their home pitch.  Only two clubs currently control their destiny for the Shield: Atlanta United and New York Red Bulls, and those two clubs will play each other again in late September.  The fact is, there are still three months left in the season.  It is not easy to win in this league, and anything can happen on any night.  Ask FC Dallas about that.  Here are the facts:  Atlanta United has lost only once in their last 12 matches.  They are by far the best road team in MLS.  They lead MLS in goals scored without a secondary goal scorer.  And they've done all of this without Nagbe, Garza and (much of it without) Barco.  Can you imagine how devastating this team could be at full strength?  After a much needed week off, Atlanta United has a stretch of games against Columbus (home), Orlando (road), DC (road), San Jose (road) and Colorado (road).  They have a realistic chance to get at least 13 points from that stretch.  If they do, nobody will be worried about the Supporters' Shield anymore.

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