5 Five Stripes Thoughts: The Four Horsemen ride again over Columbus

Mike Conti
August 20, 2018 - 2:34 pm
Atlanta United forward Hector Villalba with forward Josef Martinez

© Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

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If you were part of the 45,303 people that attended Sunday’s Atlanta United victory over Columbus Crew, you got your money’s worth.

Not only did you see Josef Martinez score his 27th goal of the season, which ties the MLS single-season record with nine games still to play; but, you witnessed two of the prettiest goals scored by the Five Stripes all season.  You saw a resilient club fight back (again) after giving up an early second half equalizer to earn three points.  And, you may have attended a match that could go a very long way to securing the Supporters’ Shield for Atlanta United.

On a weekend where both New York City and New York Red Bulls dropped points, Atlanta United took care of business at home, maintaining an undefeated, untied record when they score three or more goals.  They are now unbeaten in twelve of their last 13 matches.  And, perhaps most astounding, Atlanta United is now 9-0-1 following matches in which they drop points.  Here are my five thoughts on Sunday’s match and the week ahead:

1. Don’t laugh, a forty goal season for Josef Martinez is not impossible.  Josef got his 27th goal early in the match Sunday against Columbus and could have easily had a hat trick.  A header ticked off the cross-bar in the second half, and he had a big fat peach right at his feet at the top of the 18 yard box that he opted to leave off to Almiron rather than go for goal himself.  Nine games remain in the season for Atlanta United.  Josef Martinez is now averaging 1.16 goals per 90 minutes of play.  If he averages 1.44 goals per 90 minutes the rest of the way, that gets him to 40 goals.  It sounds like a very daunting task.  But consider that Atlanta United still plays Orlando City (last in MLS in goals allowed), Chicago (second-to-last in MLS in goals allowed), Toronto (fifth-to last in MLS in goals allowed), San Jose and Real Salt Lake (both tied for sixth-to-last in MLS in goals allowed).  Say Josef gets just one more hat trick.  Then he would need to average 1.25 goals per 90 minutes to get to 40.  Sorry for all of the math, but the prospect is very interesting, and could be attainable if he stays healthy after his service to Venezuela in early September.

2. Miguel Almiron really needed that goal.  In my last column, I theorized that Almiron finally breaking through for a goal could open the floodgates.  He has been so close in recent weeks, with the heroics of goalkeepers like Bono and Steffen denying him point blank opportunities.  Josef’s selflessness aside, Almiron’s strike in the 82nd minute Sunday shows how dangerous his finishing can be if he can get the ball on to his left foot.  Only New York Red Bulls have two players with more than ten goals respectively this season (as of this writing).  Atlanta United joins them with Almiron’s next goal.

3. Tito Villalba’s goal is the best I’ve seen at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.  It started with a powerful clearance by Jeff Larentowicz that somehow found Villalba in stride.  From there, Tito displayed the skill that makes him, when healthy, one of the most technically gifted players on Atlanta United’s roster.  He dribbled through traffic, around at least three different defenders, and then somehow cut the ball across the face of goal to beat Steffen.  I think we could have an honest debate on if that goal against Columbus may even trump the quality of his goal last year in Orlando.  The Lion Tamer is coming in hot to Orlando, a stadium where he has been dominant over the last two seasons.

4. VAR got it right in the build up to Villalba’s goal.  I think.  I certainly understand the frustration of Columbus supporters, after Jeff Larentowicz confirmed to us on the Full Time Report that he indeed had hand ball inside Atlanta United’s own penalty area a split second before he cleared the ball up to Villalba.  Had that been called, not only would Tito’s goal have been wiped out, but Columbus would have had a penalty and a likely 2-1 lead.  It was a huge turning point in the match.  It was also officiated correctly, in my opinion.  Referee Jair Maruffo empathically signaled “ball-to-hand” at the moment of impact.  The video assistant referee checked the play and did not spot a clear and obvious error.  The prospect of having Tito’s goal of the year wiped out by something that happened 90 yards away from the net would have been very dicey and would have reopened a huge can of worms about the application of VAR.  I understand why Columbus supporters are angry, but I really think Larentowicz played the ball unintentionally, and there was not enough to overturn the call on the field.

5. Take nothing for granted against Orlando City.  The Lions are really struggling right now, earning just four points in their last 15 matches.  That’s four out of a possible 45 points.  But, recently, they have been suffering hard luck losses at the death.  Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta had one of the MLS plays of the year to take a last second win against Orlando City last weekend.  Columbus Crew perhaps got a little lucky in extracting a last second win over Orlando City where VAR was a factor.  Orlando City has not been good, but they are better than their recent record indicates.  Expect a hostile environment (as always) Friday night.  Fortunately, Atlanta United seems to play their best in those atmospheres.  They are 7-2-2 on the road this season, and they played their best half of soccer all year in the first half against Orlando on May 13.​