5 Five Stripes Thoughts: The Four Horsemen ride again in Phily

Mike Conti
July 08, 2018 - 6:42 am
Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez

© Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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Elite teams frequently find a way to bounce back after their weakest performances. Atlanta United did just that Saturday night, growing in to the match and dominating the second half in a 2-0 road win at Philadelphia Union.

Incredibly, Atlanta United is now 3-0-1 following a loss in 2018. After giving up two late goals to essentially throw away three points Wednesday in Dallas, the Five Stripes defended beautifully and passed crisply against an opponent that was thirsty for revenge. Ironically, I thought Atlanta United looked better Saturday in an 11-on-11 game against Philadelphia than when they played 11-on-9 against them on June 2. Here are my five thoughts on Saturday night’s victory:

1. Fans of this lineup are going to be happy. Barring an injury or an attempt to buy a player some rest, the 4-2-3-1 appears to be here to stay. And why not? It looks like the Four Horsemen of Martínez, Almiron, Villalba and Barco have fully developed the chemistry that is making them lethal in the final third. Villalba’s goal in the 75th minute was one of the best “team goals” of the season, with Martinez sending the ball to Almiron outside the six yard box, and Almiron sending it to Villalba for the slam dunk. Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra has said repeatedly that Atlanta United is going to make opponents adjust to them, not the other way around. This starting XI is likely here to stay, regardless of opponent or matchup.

2. A league record is now directly in the crosshairs. Since the MLS started allowing regular season draws and cancelled the shootout following the 1999 season, no team has won more than nine times on the road in a single year. Atlanta United now has six road wins with seven road games still to play. They would have to win four out of these seven to reset the record: Montreal, Orlando, DC, San Jose, Colorado, Red Bulls and Toronto. As it looks like now, the Five Stripes will be favored in at least five of those. Their road form in 2018 cannot be taken for granted. The fact that they play so well away from home is yet another trait of a championship caliber team.

3. LGP and Almiron nearly combined for the MLS goal of the year. At least it was the pass of the year, as Jason Longshore said on the broadcast. If you get an opportunity, watch Leandro Gonzalez Pirez send the ball from behind the halfway line directly to Almiron down the left wing, as if Matt Ryan was hitting Julio Jones in stride down the sideline. With Almiron’s speed, Philadelphia goalkeeper Andre Blake had no choice but to take Almiron down and draw a penalty kick, which was converted by Josef Martinez. If Almiron walks in and scores, or chips it in over Blake, we are likely talking about one of the best transition goals Atlanta United has ever scored. It was one in a long list of outstanding plays by LGP on the night.

4. We need to revisit the way Barco is being officiated. I’m going to get on my soapbox again and shout that MLS needs to start protecting its superstars, and it does the league no good for a player of Barco’s caliber to be kicked around, often harshly, with fouling players not being shown yellow cards. There were two or three ridiculous, clattering challenges on Barco last night that did not draw yellows and brought out some visible frustration from Atlanta United players. The league is not going to benefit from Barco missing time with injuries. As of now, referees are basically declaring “open season” on Barco’s shins until they start booking players who are committing these fouls. I really hope that changes soon, for the benefit of Barco and the league.

5. This team controls their own destiny to earn all of their goals... except one.  There’s still obviously a ton of games left, but it’s not too early to start pondering clinch scenarios for a postseason berth (could happen sooner than you may think). Atlanta United is also currently in excellent position to earn an automatic berth to the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League based on their two year combined point total. Amazingly, there is still the issue of FC Dallas, who lost to Real Salt Lake Saturday night. Atlanta United is now five points clear of the club they fell to Wednesday night; but, Dallas has two matches in hand. Meaning they are the only MLS club that currently controls their own destiny for the Supporters’ Shield. Not Atlanta United. As I said, there’s plenty of time for this all to sort out. But with Sporting Kansas City lapsing into shaky form lately, it’s my belief that Atlanta United, Red Bulls, New York City and FC Dallas are currently best positioned to be there when we march towards December.