For all the fans that were watching the Atlanta United vs. NYCFC matchup yesterday that denies that proper football has not come to the shores of the United States, I have news for you, we were not watching the same game. The pace and pureness of that match were no different than the Chelsea vs. Manchester United game played a few hours previous. The game put Atlanta atop the Eastern Conference Standings until a win by Philadelphia set them back in the #1 spot. It was one of the most fast-paced, exciting, jaw-dropping skillful performances I have seen since the MLS’s inception.
Striker Josef Martinez was sublime. You did not want to take your eyes off the screen. Martinez has run through records that have been set in the MLS. Yesterday he scored his 14th and 15th goals in the last 10 games and broke the record for most consecutive games with a goal at 10. Martinez looked world-class. The most mind-boggling part is that anyone watching could tell the Venezuelan was not at full fitness, but it made no difference to the impact he made on the pitch. He had his first big chance in only the third minute when Julian Gressel put in one of his trademark extraordinary crosses. Although it was saved, it was a sign that of the beginning of something special emerging.
The piece I wrote yesterday about VAR came into effect in this game, which of course seemed to be somewhat serendipitous, although not for United. In the 33rd minute, a free-kick whipped in by Pity Martinez found the head of the outstanding CB Miles Robinson who dispatched the ball into the bottom left corner of the goal. At first glance nothing seemed wrong with the goal, and after watching the replay 10 times; I still saw nothing wrong with the goal. Yes, Robinson put both hands on the back of Alexander Callens, and yes there was a tiny push. However when watching the replay there are also other things evident, Callens was beaten with or without the push. It seemed certain the goal would stand, although Taylor Twellman’s commentary made it seem like a Zidane-esqe foul, and that the goal would be recalled. He was somehow correct.
This is one of the fundamental problems with VAR. Jostling for position from set-pieces is so common in every football match ever played, that sometimes you see players using defenders as a stand to elevate themselves using both arms to propel them upwards. There have been hundreds of goals in the EPL, World Cup, Champions League, and many more contests where plays like that occur, which is why this tiny push should not amount to disallowing the goal. VAR is meant to correct injustices in the game; this was an example of a player, who is playing a contact sport, using his body to gain the upper hand. VAR is taking the humanity out of the game, and as Twellman later says himself that VAR, “Maybe making the game less human and more analog.”
Then minutes later a ball found Gressel charging down the right side of the field, which seemed undefended nearly all game long. Somehow the German always seems to find space, and show remarkable pace, but most of all, his crosses are flawless. The ball came in perfectly to meet the head of Josef Martinez, which gave him the record for most consecutive games with a goal scored in MLS history. Martinez is literally, as the great Dan Patrick would say “En Fuego”. He has scored 15 in his last 10, and 45 in MLS during his career with United. Not enough can be said about how perfect Gressel’s crosses. Not only are they incredible but they very rarely seem to be more than a foot off of where he was aiming.
Atlanta dominated possession and takeaways during the game. In the end, they held 58% of the possession with 439 completed passes. Yet more evidence that the “Tiki Taka” style of play is starting to click for the team. In the 61st minute Pity Martinez made a blistering run down the left side and was tripped up in the penalty box. Seconds, after the penalty was called Pity, wanted to take the kick himself, however, with a player who takes PK’s like Josef Martinez on the team, everyone knew who would step up to the spot. Once again with a style that is rarely seen in world football, Atlanta’s #7 dispatched the penalty with ease. This time only with a slight stutter step to send the keeper the wrong way.
Then it seemed the 5 Stripes became a little complacent. In the 80th minute, the ball was knocked around the box, and fell to the feet of NYCFC’s Heber who shot a rocket passed Guzan into the left-hand corner of the goal. However, that was the closest that NYCFC would get to a soaring Atlanta. The goal seemed to recompose the team, and more of our players started drifting back to defend. United successfully defended the lead, and after the four minutes of stoppage time, the familiar train horn signaled 10 wins in 11 at home for United.
This performance by Atlanta was not like any other we have ever played. This game puts every other team in the MLS on notice that United has the potential to be a contender on the highest stages. When a player like Martinez cuts through opposing teams with that kind of ease, Gressel puts in crosses like that, and we defend with such tenacity, there isn’t a team that can beat United in the MLS. Nagbe looked like Atlanta’s version of Angolo Kante, with a ravenous appetite for gaining possession and tackling the opponent. Pity Martinez has such a stunning touch on the ball combined with a talent for set pieces. Miles Robinson, despite the disallowed goal, has that determined look in his eyes that says without words, “You aren’t getting passed me.” Atlanta has a grit and determination that has been rising throughout the season, and it showed.
The game was truly sensational, and the fact that it comes on the doorstep on the Campeones Cup, and the US Open Final, Atlanta fans are excited. Certainly, one of the largest catalysts of everything that Atlanta United does comes from the 12th man. The fans that come to every game, who break attendance records, and who hold the team accountable are a huge factor in what makes Atlanta the best soccer town in the MLS. World-class football has come to our great city, and the rest of the season is certainly going to be electrifying.