How would you react when the end is nigh?
It’s a simple question, though rife with implications both personal and philosophical. You know the sort of scenario I mean, such as: If tomorrow you learned that an enormous asteroid was hurtling towards earth to destroy all known life, would you party like never before, or use every precious last moment on loved ones and unfulfilled wishes?
Atlanta United have built something beautiful over the past few years, and alas, the sunset is already setting on its first iteration. We know head coach Tata Martino is moving on at season’s end. Dynamite playmaker Miguel Almiron may also be headed for the door, with myriad rumors and reports of a big-money transfer to Europe (though ATLUTD may try to keep hold of him long enough for a Concacaf Champions League run in the spring).
Similar words could be uttered about Josef Martinez, with the caveat that the Venezuelan goal king appears content in The A and could well stick around and become a club icon. Such is life in the tumultuous heights of world soccer that this franchise aims to reach.
After Martino’s departure was confirmed on October 23, and with the man ATL fans lovingly call "Miggy" sidelined by a strained hamstring, the Five Stripes’ next on-field move was to meekly capitulate to Toronto FCon Decision Day, handing the Supporters’ Shield to the New York Red Bulls after leading the overall league standings for most of the season. It was hardly a confidence-building reaction to the prospect of offseason change, and left many of us with big questions about this team’s psychological makeup as the clocked ticked down on their second season of existence.
Atlanta showed us that they’re made of sterner stuff, however, by sweeping aside New York City FC in their Eastern Conference Semifinal, capped by Sunday’s emphatic 3-1 second-leg victory at a jam-packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Martino had a job to do with his squad over the past two weeks, in both motivational and organizational terms. Almiron and the physios did too, as they nurtured his damaged hamstring back to health. And with one more step to climb before MLS Cup is in their sights, all parties have earned high marks.
Atlanta, who are 2-2-2 in the matches Almiron have missed due to injury over the past two seasons, are a different team without the Paraguayan, a reality driven home by that off-color outing in Toronto in the regular-season finale. Martinez in particular seemed affected by his absence. Perhaps that’s why Martino has built his postseason lineups around the idea of liberating the duo to the fullest extent possible, trotting out a 3-5-2 formation with them partnered up top.
The setup was important enough to trust second-year center back Miles Robinson, who made a mere three starts in the regular season, to replace the injured Jeff Larentowicz on the backline. Does it help the Five Stripes to field dynamic wingbacks in Greg Garza and Franco Escobar? Sure. Do Darlington Nagbe, Julian Gressel and Eric Remedi continue to do underrated work in the center of midfield? Of course.
But Almiron, above all, is the key. His cleverness and class on the ball, his ability to orchestrate Atlanta’s lightning transitions, his uncanny knack for nudging a match’s tempo to whatever speed his team needs it to be – it’s all borderline world-class, and it’s why he got my vote for Landon Donovan MLS MVP, and it’s what makes ATL UTD unstoppable at their best.
Oh, and did I mention the set-piece mastery?
I don’t know if Almiron is leaving Georgia this winter. I don’t know how, or whether, the Five Stripes will replace him — or Martino, for that matter. But I do know that he’s the one who can deliver them the 2018 title, and end the first chapter in the young club’s history in a blaze of glory.
And after Sunday, I feel quite confident that he and his teammates are going all-out to get there.