Atlanta United continued its streak of good results Friday night, picking up its eighth win in nine games across all competitions in a 1-0 victory at Orlando City. The Five Stripes now are three points clear of the Philadelphia Union, who play Saturday night, atop Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference, and they have run their all-time record against Orlando to 6-0-2.
Obviously, there were positives to take away from the win, but first, the bad news.
‘Poor’ is a generous adjective for Atlanta’s performance
Atlanta was good for a 15-minute stretch to begin the second half. Other than that, the Five Stripes were far below the standard they have set in the past five weeks. They struggled to win duels, and individual errors in defense led to dangerous chances for the Lions, who failed to convert. In attack, passing and movement was too slow and not sharp enough during the first half. And with Orlando pushing for an equalizer late and leaving space at the back, Atlanta was not clinical in front of goal.
Atlanta has played recent games with the mentality and intensity of individual finals. Asked this week if it is possible to sustain that level through the rest of the season without burnout, Frank de Boer noted the September international bread will offer respite. The Orlando heat and humidity must have played a factor Friday, but Atlanta looked like it needed a break as soon as possible.
“We weren’t fresh, and a lot of mistakes, each pass is getting to Orlando, and at the end it’s fantastic that they have a result like this of course,” de Boer said Friday, per a quote sheet provided by the club. “Three points, 1-0, clean sheet. Of course you know they could have scored one, two, or three times, we all saw three times.
“We were more lucky today, I think. We have to try to avoid that we are lucky, but again you’re going to have these kind of games during the season.”
Josef Martínez scored the winner but was unable to put the game away with two one-v-one chances against goalkeeper Brian Rowe. Martínez in particular could use a rest. Thanks to international duty, he has not had time off since January. Venezuela manager Rafael Dudamel did not select Martínez for La Vinotinto’s Sept. 10 friendly against Colombia.
“Yes we felt tired,” the forward said after Atlanta’s win. “I just said to some of the guys that I was feeling tired all day, even at the hotel. I felt a little bit tired, but you can never underestimate the champion so you know, I had a few chances today I could’ve scored more, but the most important thing is that we got the win and now we have to get ready for the [U.S. Open Cup] final on Tuesday.
“It would be important, if I didn’t go with the national team, to get some rest.”
And now, the good news.
Atlanta took three points anyway
It is cliche to say championship contenders sometimes must overcomer bad nights to get wins, but it is true. Orlando out-shot Atlanta 22-15, and the Five Stripes were fortunate to see 17 of the Lions’ shots blocked or off target. Atlanta put just three of its shots on target, but with Martínez leading the line, there is always the possibility one good chance will be enough.
Atlanta needed a moment of brilliance to win Friday. Martínez and Ezequiel Barco combined to create it. They played a one-two in transition with Barco using his dribbling ability and a deft lay-off to create space for Martínez, who whipped a shot past Rowe and inside the far post from 18 yards. The Venezuela international, who relishes the rivalry with Orlando, now has scored in 12 consecutive MLS games, once again extending his own record.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 24, 2019
“A lot of travel and we are feeling tired even from the start of this game, but for me, I enjoy scoring against all teams but when you do it against a team whose fans are yelling stuff at you before the game,” Martínez said. “I received a lot of messages from Orlando fans, but your play on the field is the best way to talk, so when you look to perform against a team’s fan base like that then it makes it even better.”
Atlanta players acknowledged the dip in quality Friday night, but if the postgame locker room photo is any indication, spirits are high. Taking all three points from this sort of game can provide a boost going forward.
“Yeah, we didn’t play our best,” Justin Meram said. “I mean you guys could see it. It was hot, it was humid and just overall a little sloppy in the first half, and they were coming for us. Brad [Guzan] made some big saves. Second half, I think we found our way a little bit and created a lot of chances, and found a way to win. Good teams, when you don’t play your best, find a way to win, and you know we did that tonight.”
On to another final
If Atlanta was out of gas Friday, it needs to refill the tank quickly. Tuesday brings the U.S. Open Cup final versus Minnesota United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It is an opportunity to win another trophy and to qualify for the 2020 Concacaf Champions League.
The stakes and the home support may give the Five Stripes the shot of energy they need to get through another 90 minutes.
“Playing for trophies will take away some of that fatigue,” Julian Gressel said last month when asked about the team’s congested August schedule. “That’s why I think the Campeones Cup and the Open Cup, we’ll definitely be up for those games.
“One game where you do or die, you move on or you win a trophy. In those kind of games, I think it’s a bit of a different game than all these MLS games where you play for three points. You always know you’re going to have another game for three points again. The elimination games, you don’t.”