By Sean Garnett
On a night when Atlanta United had the opportunity to clinch a playoff spot, becoming only the 4th expansion team in MLS history to do so, the 5-Stripers did not disappoint. 43,006 red and black faithful fans packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium to witness history, as Atlanta United (15-8-7, 3rd in the East) dismantled the Philadelphia Union (9-13-9, 10th in the East) 3-nil, continuing their stellar play and guaranteeing a spot in the 2017 MLS Playoffs! Finishing their chances, Julian Gressel, Josef Martinez, and Jacob Peterson all scored, while Brad Guzan had a couple of brilliant second-half saves to help keep the shutout for Atlanta United. Tonight’s game marked the 5th shutout in the past 6 games as the 5-Stripers continued their home dominance and certainly have the rest of MLS worried about possible match-ups with this club in the playoffs.
With the absence of the 5-Stripe heart-beat, Miguel Almiron, out with injury, any Atlanta United true fan was worried about how the team would respond in his absence. However, as most of Atlanta United’s games have gone at home, they started out dominating possession. Outside backs Anton Walkes and Chris McCann pushed very high, forcing Union into uncomfortable disadvantages out wide and in the attacking third. However, Philadelphia obviously had a game plan not to let Atlanta United have their way down the flanks. So, the 5-Stripes did what great teams do, they adapted and created chances from a different area of the field…long-range shots right down the middle of the field seemed to be a good idea. An array of 30-yard bombs were unleashed by the likes of Tito Villalba, Yamil Asad, and Josef Martinez. In the first 20 minutes of the match, Union goalkeeper, Andre Blake, came up huge with several high-quality saves on the rips from a distance, keeping the Union in the game early on.
The long-range strikes loosened up the stingy Union defense, and Atlanta United was able to show off their high-quality one and two-touch combination play as Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, in the 27th minute, came up from his center-back position to find a streaking Julian Gressel at the top of the box. LGP played a perfectly weighted and timed ball ahead of the rookie, who calmly collected it, while moving to his left, and beat his mark, fellow rookie Jack Elliot and Union goalkeeper Blake, with the outside of his right boot, finding the right back post side netting in the process. It was Gressel’s 4th goal of the season and Pirez’ 3rd assist from his center-back position.
The first-half continued with much of the same…Atlanta United possessing and creating chances, while the Philadelphia Union chased and grew frustrated with their lack of ability to hold onto the ball. While the Union looked like a team ready for the season to be over, Atlanta United looked to be firing on all cylinders and excited about what’s next for this young franchise!
After a few nice defensive stops from the Union, the growing legend, Josef Martinez, did what most fans of the red and black have come to expect, he put another ball in the back of the net! Martinez notched his 18th goal of the season, good for 3rd in the league in scoring. His goals per game ratio are off the charts as he has only played in 17 games this season. The 33rd-minute strike came from great combination play right down the middle again, with crisp one and two touches passes resulting in a through ball for Martinez off the foot of Gressel. This time Martinez ripped a left-footed blast to the same right far post side netting that Gressel scored in less than 10 minutes earlier. Martinez ran 60 yards back to the AU bench and was given the Almiron jersey which he put over his head, as an obvious tribute to the Paraguayan national.
Coming into the game, most Atlanta United fans probably figured that Gressel would be the obvious choice for Head Coach Tata Martino to slide into Almiron’s position, however, how many would have expected that to have been Martino’s choice at the beginning of the season? The rookie has done an admirable job in his first season and is the obvious choice for Rookie of the Year for MLS. He solidified that tonight with dynamic play and vision amongst a star-studded line-up. His game-winning goal and assist to Martinez, along with his defensive work in the second half made him Man of the Match. Gressel added to his MLS rookie assist lead notching his 9th tonight.
The game would go into halftime with the red and black up 2-0 looking in complete control of the match.
However, many people in the soccer world call a 2-goal lead the worst lead possible. That looked to be the case early in the 2nd half, as Philadelphia came out with a much greater defensive work rate and intensity which created some turnovers against Atlanta in the midfield. After having zero goal-saving chances in the first 45 minutes, Brad Guzan finally got to show off his US National Team level talent, as he made a couple of brilliant diving stops in the first 10 minutes of the half to keep the Union off the scoreboard.
Atlanta took what looked like 3-0 lead minutes later as Villalba finished an unselfish assist from Martinez, however, after review the goal was disallowed after a missed off-sides call on Martinez.
Guzan and company again were tested as Union winger, Fabrice-Jean Picault got around the left flank and played a nice ball to the top of the box for Haris Medunjanin, who struck a great shot that beat Guzan, but not the woodwork, as the shot banged off the crossbar. Guzan did have two more big saves, both off of crosses that found the head and foot of C.J. Sapong, which drew the affectionate, Guuuuuzzzzzzzz, from the Atlanta United faithful.
To ice the game, in the 89th minute, Jacob Peterson finished a tough angled open net shot for his 3rd goal of the season. Villalba played a sweet through ball to Peterson as he made a run from his right-wing position and beat the goalkeeper on the dribble to find an open left side of the net. Peterson has barely 150 minutes of playing time, but he has made the most of his minutes averaging a goal every 50 or so minutes of field time!
On a night when Arthur Blank would be celebrating his birthday, Atlanta United expected nothing less than a victory to celebrate! “Uncle Arthur” is quite the player’s owner. He has an obvious love for his Atlanta United team, which was noticed in his embrace of Julian Gressel after receiving his “Man of the Match” award. Not only do the players enjoy Mr. Blank’s company, but the red and black faithful also can’t get enough of him either! I don’t know how many team owners share their birthday cake with their supporters, but I do know that on this evening, Arthur Blank stayed in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium long after all the players had left the field to hand out plates of his cake to the fans personally. Signing autographs of just about anything available to him…(one fan even had him sign his cell phone???), and taking pictures with anyone who asked.
After having a 6-game home match streak, Atlanta United finally will have to board a plane to play a game! This Saturday, September 30th, the 5-Stripes will travel to play the New England Revolution. The game is slated to kick-off at 7:30 in what the Revolution hope will be different from the past game when the Red and Black spanked them 7-0.