ATLANTA — Entering Atlanta United’s 1-0 win over Orlando City SC Sunday, the Five Stripes had never lost to their regional rival, compiling a 4-0-2 record in the series. And after a slow start to 2019, Atlanta had won three of its previous four games. Overconfidence could have been the undoing for Frank de Boer’s team.
Orlando pressed high when Atlanta attempted to play out of the back. It is not the first time an opponent has used this strategy against de Boer’s possession-based system, but on Sunday, the Five Stripes found it unusually difficult to cope. Errant passes and loose touches in its own half — even its own defensive third — left Atlanta exposed on numerous occasions. In some instances, individual recovery efforts snuffed out Orlando chances. In others, the Lions simply could not finish.
“I said at halftime, the only time we gave chances away we were overconfident,” de Boer acknowledged after the game. “We were sloppy, and we have to get that out of our system. We played very well, but only those moments where you think, ‘OK, I can do that or I can just turn around’ — we have to avoid those kind of mistakes because something can change the game, and we don’t want that, of course.
“We were good in the game, but sometimes we were too sloppy and overconfident. We have to realize, you have to play with confidence, but not to make that silly mistake.”
Atlanta scored the game’s only goal when Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez opened his account with the club in the 14th minute, but the first half was fairly even. The Five Stripes dominated in the first 10 minutes after halftime and had a second goal disallowed following a VAR check. Orlando made two substitutions early in the second half. Defender Kyle Smith replaced Alex De John, who could not stop Héctor “Tito” Villalba’s relentless dribbles from the left flank, in the 58th minute. Six minutes later, the promising young attacker Chris Mueller entered for a largely ineffective Dom Dwyer. Atlanta was on its back foot the rest of the day.
“They had two really good chances out of that,” de Boer said. “And now we didn’t get punished, but I’m sure that we’re going to be punished when we do it again.”
For those who put stock in the expected goals statistic, Orlando won the final xG tally 1.74 to 1.09. Of course, the actual goals, not those projected by computer models, are what count. Jeff Larentowicz, who came on to shore up the defense in midfield and made his 400th Major League Soccer appearance in the 76th minute, pushed back on the idea that Atlanta was error prone.
“I thought the team played well,” Larentowicz said in the locker room. “It has been a lot of games, but mistakes are common. It’s a shutout, so I thought it was a good performance.”
Although he voiced his concerns, de Boer thought the result was fair and that Atlanta deserved full points.
“I think we were the better team, so at the end, I think the best team won,” the manager said. “Again, we could be very disappointed because they could have scored easily two goals. Again, we have to avoid that, but I think that the best team won.”
Meram’s Atlanta debut
It was a day of milestones for Atlanta: El Pity’s first goal, Larentowicz’s 400th appearance and new acquisition Justin Meram’s first runout with the club. Meram spelled Julian Gressel in second-half stoppage time and was energetic in his brief cameo, zipping around both ends of the field and completing his three attempted passes.
“Just to go out there, work hard defensively,” Meram said of the instructions he received from de Boer. “Obviously it’s a one-goal lead, so to just be defensively sound and when you get your moment, keep the ball.”
Meram spent an unpleasant half-season with Orlando in 2018, joining the team via trade from Columbus Crew SC. The Iraq international struggled individually as Orlando collapsed as a whole, and the Lions traded Meram back to Columbus in July. Before he left the Sunshine State, Meram claimed Orlando fans “wished death” upon him, and he took a leave of absence from the team.
There appeared to be no ill will among Meram and his former teammates Sunday. After the final whistle, the Atlanta debutante shared words with a few of his old colleagues, and he exchanged jerseys with Dwyer.
Hard day’s work for Josef
Josef Martínez did not score. He took four shots, and one was on target. It would be easy to chalk it up as a bad day for the 2018 MLS Most Valuable Player. But Martínez’s role is different in 2019. He is tasked with more than goal scoring, and de Boer loved this shift his center forward worked against Orlando.
Martínez fell back throughout the game to help Atlanta build its possession. He would go quiet at times, dropped into midfield or marooned out on the wing. Then, Martínez would show up in the center of Atlanta’s attacking action again. The man who holds MLS’s single-season goals record cannot focus all of his attention on stalking opposing 18-yard boxes, but de Boer is enthused with what he is seeing.
“To me, he was one of the best players today,” the manager raved. “Everything, what he did, he did really well.
“It’s like music, you know: small pass, and then suddenly you accelerate, and you feel the danger. Everybody feels in the crowd or me, myself, will see, ‘Oh there’s something happening.’ And he had his chances today, so I was really pleased with his performance today.”