5 Five Stripes Thoughts: Atlanta’s wish upon a star comes true

Mike Conti
August 26, 2018 - 11:14 am
Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez

© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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A dream came true for Josef Martinez Friday night; and, in the same breath, Atlanta United’s biggest rival suffered a tremendous nightmare.

It seemed almost too good to be true: an opportunity for Josef Martinez to become the MLS single-season goal scoring king in the stadium occupied by Orlando City.  But Orlando is the city in which magic becomes reality, and Josef was finally able to break through in the 74th minute to score his 28thgoal of the season.  It doubled as a game-winning goal in a 2-1 Atlanta United victory, which gives the Five Stripes full control of the Supporters’ Shield race with eight matches remaining.

Frankly, the score-line was not indicative of how well Atlanta United played, especially in the second half.  Fair play must be given to Orlando City, who played about as well as they can play, in my opinion.  Joe Bendik, who has been extremely shaky this season and even lost his starting job as the Lions’ goalkeeper, made eight saves to keep it close.  But Atlanta United’s quality was just too much.  They looked like the fresher side in the late moments on a humid night in Central Florida.  And now they have a three game season sweep of the Lions with a 8-2 scoring aggregate.

Here are my Five Thoughts on Friday’s historic performance in Orlando:

1. It’s fitting that No. 28 was a team goal.  We have said repeatedly that a striker is only as good as the service he gets.  Josef Martinez has been an incredible finisher in front of net this season, but he would be the first to give full credit to his teammates for creating many of those opportunities.  Julian Gressel, Tito Villalba and even Miguel Almiron (who didn’t even touch the ball) all had roles in the buildup to Josef’s record-setting tally.  For Gressel, it was his tenth assist of the season, and nine of them have been on goals scored by Martinez.  And, to be sure, Josef’s finish was first class.  He walked through Orlando City’s defenders, took a deft touch around Bendik, and then chipped it home.  The swagger he showed in looking back (and possibly saying something) at a prone Bendik reminded me of Allen Iverson’s step-over on Tyronn Lue in Game One of the 2001 NBA Finals.

2. Forty goals can still be achieved for Josef.  But it’s going to be extremely difficult.  Josef is now averaging 1.07 goals per game (or one goal per 78 minutes).  He would need to average 1.5 goals per game the rest of the way to get to 40, and I think there’s a possibility he may be given a game off after he completes his national team call-up for Venezuela in early September.  On the other hand, Atlanta United still faces Chicago (22nd in MLS in goals allowed), Toronto, Real Salt Lake, and San Jose, all teams that have given up goals in buckets this season.  If Josef could somehow pull another hat trick, the race to 40 goals would be very interesting.  No matter how this ends, we will all remember goal number 28.  Everything from this point forward is icing on the cake.

3. Julian Gressel is a viable option at right back.  We’ve always known this was a possibility, but we saw Gressel get his first big test at this position Friday night and he passed with acceptable marks.  Gressel was a big factor in the goal scored by Scott Sutter in the 39th minute, which can be chalked up to a learning experience.  Otherwise, Gressel was strong in the tackle, made good decisions, and even drew a foul.  And, obviously, he assisted on the game-winning goal.  I’m not sure if Franco Escobar’s injury is significant; but, if it is, playing Gressel at right back gives Tata Martino a good option to keep the “Four Horsemen” on the pitch along with the German.

4. Many happy returns for Ezequiel Barco.  Friday night represented a very productive 89 minute run-out for Barco, by far his longest since he vanished from the lineup in mid-July.  By all accounts, Barco has been doing everything right since Tata Martino excluded him from the lineup, and that hard work was evident Friday night in a series of great passes and movement on and off the ball.  More importantly, it seemed as though Barco maintained the level of chemistry with Almiron and Martinez that he had before his exclusion.  Barco has played three times since mid-July: 89 minutes against Orlando, 16 minutes against Columbus, and a few minutes in the All Star game.  He has passed the test in each appearance.

5. If Brad Guzan doesn’t make the save of the year, we’re probably having a different discussion about the Martinez goal.  I’ve written a few times this season about how often I feel like we take Guzan for granted.  There was nothing he could have done on Sutter’s goal, and honestly I thought there was very little he could do on Dwyer’s flick two minutes after Martinez put Atlanta United ahead.  But this is Brad Guzan.  He launched his big frame to the right and made a beautiful diving stop to parry away Dwyer’s shot and preserve the victory.  ​

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