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Same Ole Atlanta United

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Well, we've seen this way too often: a shorthanded Atlanta team plays fast-and-loose against an underwhelming opponent, fools around, piles up crushing penalties and turnovers, and catches the L at home. We've seen it in football, against Buffalo and now Miami. We saw it in futbol last week, when Atlanta United scratched and clawed to a late lead only to lose it, and the game, late against Minnesota United.

We'll see if Atlanta United can make amends this evening, in New York against a Red Bulls team (5:00 PM Eastern, FS1) that may very well be visiting Atlanta in a couple weeks.

Mikey Ambrose will fill in the backfield for All-Star Greg Garza (out for at least the first playoff game, with a hamstring tear) and the Five Stripes, trying to hold the line for goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who now knows his World Cup dreams are dashed with USMNT.

Atlanta's offense will try to get on the board early and get a measure of payback for their season-opening loss to NYRB back in March. The Red Bulls were backsliding with an eight-game winless streak, but snapped that with a big 3-0 home win versus Vancouver last week. Led by winger Daniel Royer, NYRB is looking to build some momentum into the first round of the MLS Playoffs.

Let's Go United!


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It’s Decision Day in the MLS! A lot of hot matches impacting postseason status, all 11 kicking off at the same time, will have this league looking a lot like RedZone on this football Sunday. Atlanta United gets to close things out at home against the MLS Supporters’ Shield claimants, Toronto FC (4 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South in ATL, TSN4 in T-Dot; Whip-around coverage of all MLS matches on ESPN).

Atlanta’s recent matches in New England, at home versus Minnesota, and in the New York metro against the Red Bulls failed to produce victories. By result, NYCFC (16-9-8 W-L-T, 56 MLS Points) retained and controls its own destiny, as far as avoiding the knockout stage of the MLS Cup Playoffs.

ATLUTD (15-9-9, 54 Points) would need a win today plus a loss/tie by both NYCFC and the Chicago Fire (16-10-7, 55 Points) to secure the second-seed, skip the knockout stage, and await the 3-vs.-6 winner in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

NYCFC has a home game to close out the proceedings against the Columbus (at-least-for-now) Crew (16-12-5), who sit just a point behind Atlanta in the standings. The Crew also has a shot at the 2-seed and would like for Atlanta and Chicago to lose, allowing a win over NYC to vault them in front of all three clubs.

Rewarding what should be another league-record crowd at The Benz with the possibility of a home playoff game, Atlanta needs to win and hope the Fire gets doused at Houston in their season finale. The Dynamo still have a shot at securing a home game in the Western Conference knockout round, so they’ll be motivated to knock off Chicago.

The worst-case scenario, with a loss today plus a Crew win/tie, could involve having to prevail on the road (at NYC/Chicago) in the knockout stage, then hold off their semifinal opponent (which would be Toronto) in their house on aggregate. The Five Stripes’ last road victory came 1-0 in Orlando way back on July 21.

Atlanta would need to deposit a W today to compile the most points by an expansion club in MLS history. They would surpass the 1998 Fire, who amassed 56 points in just 32 games (finishing second in the Western Conference) and rode stellar defense all the way to victory in the MLS Cup final. Chicago also won the US Open Cup that year.

But a couple of asterisks apply. First, Chicago entered a league that had only been around for two seasons prior. More significantly, the regular season format allowed for no ties at the ends of matches. Instead, there was a shootout after competitors were even after regulation, the winner of that stage granted a single point. Had the pair of shootout wins by the ’98 Fire gone the other way, Atlanta’s MLS maiden-voyage point tally in 2017 would be tied right now.

Since the MLS ditched shootouts for regular-season meetings back in 2000, the most successful of all expansion clubs were the 2009 Sounders, also the last expansion club (there have been eight new franchises since) to reach the playoffs in their first MLS season. That season, Seattle compiled 1.57 MLS points per game, an average the Atlanta United club has definitively surpassed (no worse than 1.59 with a loss today). As another noteworthy asterisk, the Sounders existed as an organization in lower-tier leagues for 15 years before they came online in MLS.

Sitting well above the fray, it remains to be seen whether visiting Toronto will be in cruise-control, or actively looking to play spoiler and treat this contest as a final playoff tune-up. In terms of points per game, Toronto (20-5-8, 68 points through 33 games) will finish behind only the 1998 Los Angeles Galaxy (2.12 PPG) for the most successful regular season of all time, the above asterisk about shootouts applying here. Toronto’s +37 goal differential is four goals behind L.A. ‘98 for the best mark of all-time; impressively, Atlanta’s +30 ranks 4th all-time.

In the post-shootout era, a loss today for The Reds would leave them tied with the 2005 San Jose Earthquakes (18-4-10), while a win in Atlanta today would leave all doubt behind. Toronto can also become, today, the first post-shootout MLS side to notch more than 20 wins, a tally reached only by Seattle in 2014. But having the league’s best record, even of all time, has not been a surety of playoff success, as the ’98 Galaxy, the ’05 Quakes, and the ’14 Sounders can attest.

Only two Supporters’ Shield winners, Columbus in 2008 and L.A. in 2011, went on to win the MLS Cup. The last five Shield winners failed to even reach the MLS Cup final, and of those, three failed to survive their conference semifinal round. Toronto is seeking to buck the trend, and could use a high-intensity fixture like this one to sharpen their tools.

In addition to trying to sew up his MVP candidacy, Sebastian Giovinco is looking to close out the regular-season by securing his grip on the Audi Player Index Award. Seba has an 8-point lead over NYC’s David Villa, despite the striker starting in just 24 matches.

Toronto will rely on Eriq Zavaleta (coach Greg Zanney’s nephew) and the backline to retrieve the ball as swiftly as possible, before Peachtree Pressers Yamil Asad, Tito Villalba, and Josef Martinez can build up a head-of-steam. That would allow Team USA legend Michael Bradley and the Reds’ midfielders to set up quality chances for All-Stars Giovinco and Jozy Altidore.

Sustaining possession will matter as much as it has in months for Atlanta United, who is pleased about the approaching return of Miguel Almiron. While he is unlikely to appear in this match, signs are looking up that he’s training and will be available for our first-ever playoff contest. Defensive stalwart Leandro Gonzalez Pirez will sit this one out due to yellow cards, so Jeff Larentowicz will fill the void and keep the box as clean as possible for MLS Save of the Week winner Brad Guzan.

With a capacity-crowd on-hand, Atlanta United sure doesn’t want this home game to be their last in 2017. Will they make the right tactical decisions on Decision Day? It’s time to build momentum for the playoffs!

Let’s Go United!


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Playoff Gameday!

What might be the last home playoff game in The 404 for a while is about to go down at The Benz!

After a month worth of struggles to regain their September magic, Atlanta United will do all they can to extend the home-field run just a little bit longer. The Knockout Round is an elimination game versus the Columbus Crew (7:00 PM Eastern, ESPN2), and while Atlanta won the two regular season meetings by a combined score of 5-1, Columbus is in no mood to lay down and die tonight.

Fans of the Crew (16-12-5, 4-9-4 in away games) were waylaid last week by the news that team owner Anthony Precourt is collaborating with MLS on plans to relocate the franchise to Austin by 2019, a ploy pressuring Ohio’s capital city to expedite negotiations for a new (publicly-funded) downtown stadium.

It is the predictable side effect of the wild success Arthur Blank has had with his new venue and team that other one-percenters hope to duplicate Atlanta’s early results. It’s a scheme that has left Crew fans ornery but with the sobering recognition, along with players and staff, that this could be the final postseason contest for a proud small-market club that once had the most successful run from regular-season to an MLS Cup championship in league history (in 2008).

Despite the tremendous effort by Atlanta (15-9-10) to come out guns-blazing on offense this inaugural season, and despite the reasonably steady defense and goaltending to support them, it is the Crew that has tallied one more victory than ATLUTD.

A big factor for Columbus has been solid midfielder play, led by star Federico “Pipa” Higuain (14 assists, 4th in MLS, tied with Atlanta’s Miguel Almiron), 2016 All-Star Wil Trapp, and Justin Meram. The pair sets the table nicely for striker Ola Kamara (18 goals, 5th in MLS and one fewer than Atlanta’s Josef Martinez; 8 of those goals on the road). The team has bounced back well since the tumult in May that led to the trade of former star Kei Kamara (no relation to Ola). Manager Gregg Berhalter is believed to be on the shortlist to become the next USMNT head coach.

It takes catching an L to get ousted from the Knockout Round, and it should not be lost that Columbus has not lost a match since August 5 in San Jose. They’ve gone 6-0-4 since, 1-0-3 on the road, and who knows what happens if they can claw their way to a shootout phase tonight. “We’re 10 games unbeaten and we’re the hottest team in the league,” said Trapp, to the Columbus Dispatch. “When we played (Atlanta) back in June and July, we were working through a lot of things that we’ve gotten right since.”

Chicago went 12-2-3 at home, only to get blown out, 4-0, last night by a Red Bulls team that slipped into the MLS Playoffs with a 5-10-2 road mark. So anything can happen, especially if the road team can get an early jump on the favorites.

This game now presents itself as possibly the visitors’ last chance to ensure, by way of a home playoff game in the next round, that this isn’t the final playoff contest for the team under the Columbus Crew banner. Columbus now comes into Mercedes-Benz Stadium very hungry to steal away the ATL’s shine. “I mean, the league doesn’t want us there,” said Trapp about Columbus, his native town, in quite a double-entendre. “They don’t want us to beat Atlanta in Atlanta. So that’s our motivation.”

Brad Guzan is disappointed about allowing two game-tying goals to Toronto last weekend, but also made some awesome saves to keep United from closing out the regular season with a disappointing defeat. With Guzan in goal, and the team possessing superior depth, Atlanta needs to make the outcome of the first 90-plus minutes decisive. The Five Stripes should have their key players back, especially drink-stirrer Almiron and possibly All-Star defender Greg Garza, for a full game. Atlanta needs strong midfielder play to dominate possession and to allow their forwards to put lots of pressure on young goalkeeper Zack Steffen in his first MLS playoff contest.

With probably another 70,000-plus chanting fans in attendance, this will be the biggest playoff game in Atlanta since the NFC championship. But it needs not be the last!

Let’s Go United!


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