Atlanta United’s 2-0 road win against the Portland Timbers — the team’s first away victory in Major League Soccer play since May 15 — was a wide-open spectacle with plenty of chances for both sides. Atlanta triumphed because individual quality emerged in the game’s critical moments. And in a battle of South American strikers wearing No. 7, Josef Martínez outdueled Brian Fernández.
Martínez did not score Atlanta’s first goal, but he played his part by getting on the end of a Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez corner and forcing Steve Clark into a difficult save. A failed clearance caromed into Leandro González Pírez’s right-place, right-time left foot, and the Five Stripes led 15 minutes after the opening kickoff.
Josef Martínez got on the scoresheet himself inside the first minute of the second half, finishing a golazo in front of the teeming Timbers Army. Julian Gressel, afforded far too much room to operate, gored Portland with a diagonal through ball that took six defenders out of the play. The Venezuela international timed his run just right and, proving he scores more than tap-ins, blasted a curling, dipping shot from inside the D that left Allen out of position and frozen. Gressel understated every aspect of the move in his postgame comments.
“I got a lot of space,” he said, per a quote sheet provided by the club. “I see Josef kind of running the line and try and squeeze it in there. It went through and what a finish it was. Right outside the box, he had so much time, but great finish and just a good goal.”
Josef Martínez gave a shout to his connection with Gressel. It was the sixth Gressel-to-Josef MLS goal this season, which is tied for the most successful attacking combination in the league.
“Those happen when Julian and me hit the field,” Josef Martínez told Katie Witham on FS1’s postgame broadcast. “He knows what I want. I know when he made that pass and I stopped the ball, I knew the goalkeeper would be stuck a little bit more high.”
He won't stop! 😡
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 19, 2019
On a night when the end-to-end play left the result in question for much of the game, Josef Martínez came through as he always seems to do. He now has scored in 11 consecutive MLS games, extending his record and again redefining the idea of “in form.” Like Gressel, Josef Martínez undersold his team’s performance, but his last point in speaking to Witham was true.
“We had a lot of luck,” he said, “because they had a lot of chances. Maybe we made three chances and we made two scores. This is important. Every time you have a chance to score, you have to do that.”
The Five Stripes created 14 chances, and the Timbers nearly matched with 13. But, Portland and Fernández were unable to turn their opportunities into goals. The Timbers’ Argentine forward thought he equalized in the 22nd minute, but unlike his Atlanta counterpart, he didn’t stay onside. Fernández was caught offside three times during the game. Each infraction occurred inside the penalty area and came directly before an attempt at goal.
More individual quality in defense
With the Timbers playing aggressively in front of their home crowd, Atlanta needed individual excellence at the back, too. The Five Stripes got it. Frank de Boer has said “defending starts up front.” Atlanta’s forwards and midfielders struggled to stop Portland’s transition play. Miles Robinson, González Pírez and Florentin Pogba, stepping in for the injured Franco Escobar, rose to the occasion. The trio hardly put a foot wrong in their defensive actions and keeping their line.
“If you get sloppy, you will get punished because we take a lot of risks,” de Boer said of his team after the game. “But if we are in good shape, then it’s a fantastic system and we can beat everybody, I think. Everybody has to be 100 percent and 100 percent concentrated. I think we are in a good fight right now.”
In a rare moment when González Pírez and Pogba were beaten, goalkeeper Brad Guzan had the biggest defensive moment of the night. Wrong-footed, Guzan reached back and palmed away Julio Cascante’s point-blank header in the 64th minute. Had Cascante scored, Portland would have ignited its supporters and built momentum trailing by one goal with 25 minutes to play.
64' | MASSIVE GUZZZZ 🗣
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) August 19, 2019
“You know, it was fantastic,” de Boer said.
“Big time,” Gressel concurred. “Especially with them at home, good crowd, those things are massive, and that’s what we have him for and that’s where we have to rely on him at some point and he comes up big tonight and saves us in a really tight game at the end.”
Is this the real Atlanta?
In their past eight games across all competitions, the Five Stripes are 7-1-0. That includes a U.S. Open Cup semifinal victory against Orlando City and the Campeones Cup triumph over Club América. Atlanta has scored multiple goals in each game, totaling 22. It has conceded seven goals, four of which came during a 12-minute span at Los Angeles Football Club. The Five Stripes have returned to the old faithful 3-5-2 formation, and the results have been stellar.
So, is Atlanta United back? A return to its high-flying, attacking ways: check. A return to form away from home: check. Atlanta United might be back.
There are further opportunities to prove this back-ness in the coming weeks: another date at Orlando this Friday, a six-pointer for the Eastern Conference lead at the Philadelphia Union Aug. 31, a U.S. Open Cup final versus Minnesota United in between.
Of course, these also are potential roadblocks that could raise more questions. Atlanta has eight regular-season games remaining, and then it is on to the MLS Cup playoffs. Crunch time has arrived.