Decision Day is always such a spectacle in the MLS with several teams still having a lot on the line. Atlanta United were battling it out with New York Red Bulls on the final day last year for the Supporters Shield but the former had little on the line this time around. Their clash against New England Revolution still held weight though as it would of course decide who the two sides would face in the playoffs.
Thanks to how it played out at the Mercedes Benz Stadium, the two teams then met again in the first round of the 2019 playoffs. There are several talking points that we can unpick from this affair, most of which being from an Atlanta perspective, in hindsight, with the playoffs now underway. Both sides came into this one on form that is not that of MLS Cup winners but the beauty of the playoffs is that the best regular season team doesn’t always go all the way. A perfect example of this occurred last season where Supporters Shield winners the Red Bulls didn’t even reach the MLS Cup final ahead of the Timbers and ATL. Prior to this one, the Revs had only picked up one win in the previous five while De Boer’s team collated just one more point at seven in these games.
It certainly didn’t take long for Darlington Nagbe to kick off the scoring at the Benz, the midfielder converted Julian Gressel’s cross with less than three minutes on the clock for his second of the year. Ecuadorian Cristian Penilla levelled the score five minutes later though as he was the benefactor of some suspect Atlanta defending. Right after the break, Julian Gressel was up to his same old tricks as his whipped ball found Josef Martinez who, of course, didn’t fail to convert and restore Atlanta United’s lead.
The king’s celebration saw him kneel in front of MLS legend Michael Parkhurst who recently announced that he will retire at the end of this season. The Atlanta captain was subbed on later in the game and received a huge ovation and rightly so, what a servant he’s been to the league and the club! It was a case of role reversals for the home team’s first goal with Josef accidentally flicking on Barco’s corner into the path of Gressel. The latter then drilled it home with expert precision and opened some breathing room that was not breached, 3-1 it finished.
The three big talking points in my eyes coming from this clash and the days following it are as followed: Parky’s retirement, Josef’s return from injury and Miles Robinson’s national team call up and then his injury. Starting with the man who has surpassed 300 appearances for MLS clubs, Michael Parkhurst. The centre back has moved around the world a bit when it comes to football but the bulk of his football has been played in the U.S. as well as 25 caps between 2007 and 2014. Parkhurst captained Atlanta to MLS Cup glory last year which broke his personal drought after being on the wrong side in four previous finals. Who better to play your final regular MLS season game against than your first MLS club, the Revs.
Josef Martinez broke records last year so when he picked up that injury versus the San Jose Earthquakes when he collided with his namesake Pity, the Fives Stripes faithful had hearts in their mouths. It was rumoured that he could return at some point during the playoffs, but then, the other week we were blessed with the news of FDB saying the decision of his return lies at the door of Josef himself. It was great to see him start this one and get some minutes under his belt with the playoffs looming, a goal and the fact he clocked up the full 90 is a beautiful bonus.
Josef Martinez of @ATLUTD scored 27 goals with a 23.1% shot conversion rate in 2019, his second consecutive season with 20+ goals at a 20+% conversion rate. Only one other player since 2007 has had multiple such seasons, and none consecutively. Deadeye
— OptaJack⚽️ (@OptaJack) October 19, 2019
The final three of the talking points comes in reflection of this game and it is regarding amazing, young centre back Miles Robinson. The 22-year-old has stormed into the starting lineup and cemented his place in De Boer’s system, he has been a key asset to the Atlanta United team and he will continue to be pivotal into the playoffs. Walker Zimmerman was forced to withdraw from the USMNT roster and in his place we see Robinson step up from the 23s. However, Robinson then also got injured and because of that, he missed out on the playoff game versus the Revs.
Gregg Berhalter’s team faced Canada and Cuba in the international break with two very contradictory results; a 7-0 drubbing of Cuba was followed up by a historic loss at the hands of Canada. Former MLS star Alphonso Davies and Lucas Cavallini who plays his football in Mexico netted the two goals for Canada in this one. A silver lining of Miles’ injury is that the 2019 MLS Defender of the Year nominee has extended his stay at the Benz until 2023.
In last year’s road to MLS Cup success, Atlanta beat NYCFC in both legs and while they lost 1-0 at Red Bull Stadium, it was a comfortable 3-0 lead at home to see them into the final. In comparison, last year, New England finished eighth in the East and thus failed to make the playoffs. Atlanta went into this opening playoff encounter as favourites and it wasn’t hard to see why, especially considering the home advantage that they held.
It was certainly not worth undermining Bruce Arena’s Revs’ side though with them certainly having some exciting players in and amongst their ranks. Carles Gil who spent some time at Aston Villa was signed from Spanish outfit Deportivo La Coruna for this season for around $2 million has definitely put many fans on the edge of their seats. In his 3,000 MLS minutes, Gil has scored ten and assisted 12 with his linkup to the likes of Gustavo Bou and this weekend’s goalscorer Cristian Penilla being key in the Revs’ attacking exploits. The aforementioned pair were signed from Club Tijuana and CF Pachuca respectively, both clubs operating in Liga MX.
The playoffs saw some absolute thrillers including Seattle beating Dallas 4-3 thanks to a Jordan Morris hat-trick and the Union coming back from 3-1 against the Red Bulls to win in extra time. The lowest scoring game had just one in it and it was in fact Atlanta vs New England. Brad Guzan was the man of the match as he made some crucial saves from Penilla and Bou to keep his clean sheet intact. Fullback Franco Escobar always shines in the postseason and this game was no different as Barco assisted him for the only goal of the game. The Argentinian has now scored three goals in just six playoff games, more than he has managed in his 47 regular season performances.
— OptaJack⚽️ (@OptaJack) October 19, 2019
This may have been much closer for comfort than the Decision Day showdown but Atlanta advanced with Josef having an off day to his high standards and Pity Martinez was an unused sub. Andre Blake tried his hardest to gift the Red Bulls the win but his teammates bailed him out to finally give Philadelphia a post-season win. Their reputation of losing every game of importance was proved wrong as Ale Bedoya inspired his side to an epic comeback. Bedoya hit the headlines when he spoke out against Congress’ approach to gun violence on the pitch earlier in the season and this was another chance for Jim Curtin to praise his captain. Blake could and should have done better for all three goals that his side conceded but Marco Fabian scored the only goal in extra-time to see the Union advance.
In the regular season, Brenden Aaronson scored in both clashes between Atlanta and the Union as the former failed to win either. At the Talen Energy Stadium, Philly won 3-1 and then Curtin and his boys got a point at the Benz in the latter stages of the regular season. De Boer may have all of his attacking options at his disposal, but Robinson will most likely miss this one too and Parkhurst, who filled in for Miles against the Revs, picked up a dislocated shoulder so could well be side-lined too. Jeff Larentowicz can of course slot into the backline but Guzan will have to put in another heroic performance behind whatever makeshift defence is put out.
The Union could also be without key players though, most notably top scorer Kacper Przybylko who missed out against NYRB due to an ankle injury. Even without his presence, Philadelphia did net four times so it will be a tough game regardless for Atlanta. The home advantage may be key again for ATL in what promises to be a very exciting game.
The other three conference semifinals should also be a joy to watch with “El Trafico” surely being the standout fixture. LAFC are yet to beat their city rivals but Bob Bradley’s side are sure favourites to win MLS Cup after they steamrolled to the Supporters Shield. The Galaxy’s game was goalless up until the 75th minute but then Sebastian Lletget and Jonathan Dos Santos struck to set up another helping of the LA derby. Jan Gregus scored a late consolation goal for Minnesota United but they failed to bag a second and thus it’s down to Schelotto’s Galaxy side to stop the rampant Vela and co in their path. Can Zlatan dominate this game and win it for the Galaxy? Will Josef turn up and win it for Atlanta? Are Seattle the real deal? Bring on more playoff action!