Atlanta United and Inter Miami played to a 1-1 draw and there were equal moments of promise for the future and flashes of 2020. Here are three takeaways from a hectic, cluttered and entertaining match.
In the ninth minute, Josef Martinez scored in an MLS game. It took 564 days for him to return to the scoresheet. I can’t say it was worth the wait — the wait was pretty lame honestly — but it felt like a reassuring moment in regards to the state of the world. Josef scored because that’s just how this all works. Things just feel better when they work.
He did it so effortlessly, too. Sometimes it feels like he’s the only person in the world who could have demanded the ball go on in from the angle it did and have it oblige. This one just required a seamless turn and a quick flick into the bottom left corner as Ryan Shawcross stood there and thought about how cool it would be to have pink hair like that. Although, maybe I shouldn’t take away too much from Josef by calling out Shawcross here…
“Chicharito scores bad goals and people say he’s a crack. I score and it’s the defender’s fault,” Josef said.
The goal marked a potential return to form and it also provided a high-water mark for Atlanta’s attack on the day. The kind of chance created here, created by a player cutting in near the top of the box and playing the ball through the middle, didn’t come again. As Josef rounds into form, the question will start to be if Atlanta can get him the ball in high leverage situations (or even low leverage situations like today’s) enough for it to matter.
For today though, Josef, the team and fans can celebrate a much-awaited moment. A moment that couldn’t have happened without the help of his doctors and trainers. When Josef scored he sprinted over to head trainer Mario Cruz to celebrate a goal he said he dreamed about every day, and a welcome boost of confidence.
“I had a lot of things in my mind. My first thing was to go to the doctors. They spent a lot of time with me and they deserve it,” Josef said. “The confidence gets easier when you score. Every day I try to be better and healthy. For me, most importantly I try to make my knee feel better. But today was one of the happiest moments of my life. We suffered a lot, we worked a lot and hopefully this is the first of many. “
Miami’s DPs are going to get most of the attention and that’s fine. It’s how it is. But don’t be surprised if Lewis Morgan is the most productive player on this Inter Miami team this year. Again.
Morgan ended 2020 as the only Inter Miami player to start every game and, quietly, the most productive player on the team. Morgan scored five goals and assisted on eight. Both of those were team highs. Not to mention that when you watched Miami, he clearly provided an attacking threat no one else on the team could replicate.
Today he showed out again. Miami routinely focused on getting the ball to Morgan on the wing and just when you started to wonder if they were relying on him a little too much, he came through with the goal no one else on the team seemed able to find. He’s a big-time player and as his fitness progresses and he continues to have a major impact, he’ll eventually get his due around the league. Phil Neville had similar thoughts on Morgan after the game.
“In terms of Lewis, he was MVP last year, best player for the club. With that comes expectation, comes more pressure. And I think what you've seen in the last couple of games, you’ve seen him getting back up to those levels and going beyond those levels," Neville said. "Today it was just a continuation of him getting more fitness, getting more speed into his play, becoming more direct. We've challenged him to score more goals. We know that he can assist goals from either flank and from set plays, but we've really challenged him on scoring goals, becoming a match-winner. And I think that's the next step for Lewis Morgan."
“I think what you saw today, you saw a point when we were just about to think he was fatiguing and after the drinks break he said he was cramping up. I didn't want to take him off because I knew that you need to keep your match winners, your individual players on the pitch that can produce moments of brilliance and he did that straight away so we're super pleased with Lewis. He fits into the group great, he's immersed himself into Miami, the culture and the club and the area, and he’s a big player for us.”
If you didn’t know already about Morgan, you really should start to.
Gabriel Heinze’s system inherently asks a lot of his defenders. Any system created with Marcelo Bielsa’s core tenets in mind is going to. Atlanta defenders from the Tata Martino era have routinely remarked on how often they were asked to defend on an island. It’s much of the same now. Especially as Atlanta continue to learn and progress under Heinze.
Obviously, Atlanta teams have had the ability to get away with putting defenders into space unaided in the past. Frankly, the center backs they have currently in Miles Robinson, Anton Walkes and Alan Franco may be better equipped to handle that isolation. Holding midfielder Santiago Sosa is equipped to help with that from time to time. But no group of defenders in the world can bear that weight if they’re facing attacks that are constantly attacking in transition from critical turnovers in terrible positions.
Sometimes those defensive players are a part of those turnovers, but it seems to be a team-wide issue right now. When Philadelphia torched Atlanta for their worst home loss in history a couple of weeks ago, a handful of chances and multiple goals were created from turnovers in bad areas that were converted into key opportunities. Inter Miami’s chances often came the same way today. Atlanta surrendered two expected goals worth of chances today, with the biggest of those coming from avoidable turnovers.
“The first half, we were good. We exploited space, we followed what we wanted to do in terms of the game plan. The second half, we turn the ball over unnecessarily, silly turnovers in bad spaces, in bad places. When you look at their chances today, two or three in the first half where we gifted the ball to them,” Brad Guzan said.
“When you look at their goal, we gifted them the ball off of our free kick. And another one or two chances in the second half where the chance with Gonzalo Higuain, we miss a pass and next thing you know he is in on goal. We need to be sharper with the ball regardless of if we are tired. That comes from mentally being sharp, physically, of course, being sharp and making sure we are secure with it.”