After a few months away, the MLS returned this weekend for the first games of 2020 and what a treat it was. A combination of last gasp goals, excellent finishes, dodgy refereeing decisions and questionable defending embodies everything that this gorgeous league stands for.
Atlanta began their season with a win but Saturday’s clash with Nashville has left a sour taste in the mouths of all Five Stripe fans. What was seemingly an innocuous challenge with Nashville defender David Romney left Josef Martinez in a heap on the ground. He tried to continue but just minutes later, he hit the deck again and struck fear into the hearts of everyone involved with Atlanta. The Venezuelan forward has hit ninety goals since joining the club back in 2017 and his absence will be felt massively with any chances of winning MLS Cup surely going out the window.
Julian Gressel and Darlington Nagbe were among the major departures along with Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and captain Michael Parkhurst with the club in a transition period. Franco Escobar went off injured at half time in this one, closely followed by Josef and the integral duo now join best XI centre half Miles Robinson on the sidelines. The squad is looking very thin on the ground now with Adam Jahn as the only striker available being a huge example of this. Some of the new arrivals brought into accommodate for the big names moving on have started well with the pacey Brooks Lennon, Argentinian defender Fernando Meza and former QPR man Jake Mulraney coming to mind.
The atmosphere was electric as Nashville got their life in MLS underway in front of nearly 60,000 fans but it was Atlanta who opened the scoring thanks to Ezequiel Barco and his individual brilliance. De Boer’s boys were knocking the ball around crisply and they kicked into gear quite quickly with Barco’s pace proving to be a big issue. He dummied the ball through a defender’s leg and then proceeded to drive down the left wing. The 20-year-old Argentine cut in and found the far bottom corner with Walker Zimmerman and Romney standing off and allowing him the space. Joe Willis had no chance of keeping this one out and Atlanta had their first MLS goal within ten minutes.
Brooks Lennon was driving strongly with the ball at his feet, constantly causing the Nashville defence a multitude of problems, but it was the home side who struck next. Former LAFC centre back and USMNT star Walker Zimmerman poked home at the second time of asking from a free-kick with Guzan unable to react in time, the 6-foot-3 defender was being covered by the 5-foot-8 Martinez; quite the mismatch.
Atlanta then regained the lead in controversial circumstances with confusion spread across the pitch. The linesman raised her flag for offside at a corner but the referee disagreed as the final touch was actually off of a Nashville defender and thus allowed play to continue. The hosts stopped and obeyed the flag but Barco’s initiative to play to the whistle worked wonders. Panamanian and former Earthquake Anibal Godoy headed clear but only as far as Emerson Hyndman who took a touch on his chest and then volleyed home for only his second-ever MLS goal.
There were a few second half chances with Randall Leal coming the closest as he was denied by the woodwork. Franco Escobar didn’t come back out after the break with debutant Lawrence Wyke coming on in his place and Josef Martinez also failed to complete the game due to what has now been revealed as an ACL tear, an injury that will sadly see him sidelined for several months, a.k.a. most of the season. In the final minutes, Willis came up for a corner and on the chase back, it appeared Barco would make it 3-1 from the halfway line. His shot was charged down by the Nashville keeper and the referee gave him just a yellow card, leaving everyone bemused. How he got away without a red card still baffles me now, but Atlanta got their season started with a three pointer away from the Benz.
Nashville may have walked away from this one empty handed but they gave a good account of themselves in their inaugural MLS fixture. The games to come look quite tough for Gary Smith’s side with visits to Portland and Toronto and then home games versus Columbus and Seattle around the corner for the next four weeks. A huge test for the Englishman with zero points after five games being very possible.
On the flipside, Atlanta have two clashes with Cincinnati and the Fire to come soon which is much easier than what Nashville will come up against. However, the two-legged tie with Club America in the quarter finals of CCL is wedged in amongst these league fixtures, this is sure to be an uphill battle in Josef’s absence. Barco and Pity will need to be on top form until the club acquire a replacement because Josef has dominated on the goalscoring front. Barco’s strike against Nashville was his 9th in MLS whilst Pity led the way for fouls gained with four, so there is clear promise for the Argentinian duo who will hopefully be on the same wavelength up top.
A good start to the season for ATL but with a major injury looming over this 2-1 victory.