Uh, well then.

Atlanta United looked decent in their five games prior to this. Four wins out of five is never bad. But this 3-0 win over Orlando, the Eastern Conference's second-place team? Friday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium was something entirely different.

Here are three takeaways from Atlanta's best performance of the year.

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1
The path ahead is clear and gentle

It feels like there are so many things to address about what Atlanta United just did. There were marked improvements across the board. But all of those improvements have to be colored in by this: Atlanta United just played the most difficult game left on their schedule (at least standings-wise) and are within three points of fifth place in the East. They’ll play every team within that three-point gap. The rest of their games – excluding fourth-place NYCFC – come against teams below them in the standings.

But that only really and truly matters because Atlanta United have turned their season around. Tonight is the clearest data point so far that they’ve not only turned this team around but are directing it, with the gas pedal creeping closer and closer to the floor, toward an outcome that didn’t seem possible even two months ago when Gabriel Heinze was dismissed.

Tonight, without Josef Martinez and Miles Robinson as they return from September’s World Cup qualifiers, the Five Stripes controlled every single facet of the game. On Atlanta United’s end, that happened for a few reasons.

Gonzalo Pineda’s tactical adjustments and preparation are maybe the easiest to identify. He sent his team out with what he called equal parts absurdly and accurately “two false nines.” With Ezequiel Barco and Luiz Araújo up top and Marcelino Moreno moving freely as the No. 10, they made runs in behind and switched the field when given the opportunity. Orlando’s backline never looked settled.

Even a small adjustment such as encouraging the team to play short corners to exploit a tendency they saw in Orlando’s film paid off for Pineda tonight. Atlanta’s first goal came when Moreno found George Campbell on a cross where the space their homegrown center back found proved lethal.

“Yes, that was part of the plan on set pieces, to do two-versus-ones as many times as possible,” Pineda said. “We detected that Orlando only sent one guy there, and an assistant pointed that out to me, and we encouraged them to play two-versus-ones many times because we have such skillful players there in Marcelino and Barco, and then Luiz Araújo too on the other side. Credit to Campbell, though, for just sprinting forward and reading the play fantastically.”

Macro and micro-adjustments aside, Atlanta simply looked better. It’s almost hard to describe without just showing you the entire game again and screaming “LOOKIT!” over and over again. But Atlanta acted more decisively. More confidently. Better drilled. Better spaced. Better quite nearly everything. It even felt like the midfield existed in this game.

Plug Martinez and Robinson into this group that suddenly understands how to win and have fun doing it under Pineda, and this team feels like it might not just make the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs but make some noise while they’re there. I may even be brave enough to say that they might just go Full Sounders. Because, instead of being frozen by the fear of departing from the coaching they’ve been given, they’re beginning to take the instructions they’re given while using those instructions as a framework to solve problems on their own.

“The test for us, and credit to the players, when we started to prepare for the game and started trying to face what we faced today during training sessions, I felt that sometimes they felt uncomfortable. Then they solved some tactical kinks on their own, and that is where I am very happy,” Pineda said. “Sometimes we as coaches can really pay attention to the solutions that the players provide to us, not us always providing the solutions. I love to analyze the training sessions because we can see certain behaviors from them that we can continue in the game plan, and they did it fantastically today.”

Now, Full Sounders? That’s a best-case scenario with very low odds – and Atlanta are still eighth in the East, sitting below the playoff line. There are obviously questions about whether or not they can replicate this with consistency. The expected goals numbers will show they maybe were a little lucky to get three goals tonight. But it’s only been a couple of weeks under Gonzalo Pineda. Imagine what this team can look like with a few more training sessions, two more Best XI-caliber players, and a whole cache of games against teams in 10th place or lower to round out the season.

In short:

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2
Where is Orlando's edge?

I can’t stop worrying about Orlando.

Coming into tonight, I had said multiple times that Orlando just didn’t seem to be themselves as of late. They spent the entire month of August scoring one goal or fewer each game, and they’ve only won two games all season by more than a goal. After Atlanta’s win tonight, the Five Stripes have equaled that number. And for a large majority of the season, Atlanta could barely get off a shot.

Even with both fullbacks healthy, Nani healthy, Mauricio Pereyra and Daryl Dike healthy, something just felt...off. Like I said, Atlanta clearly played well. But there’s something missing in the Orlando machine right now. And I think even Oscar Pareja knows it after their seven-game unbeaten streak ended.

“I'm very disappointed today. Obviously not just the result, but the way we played,” Orlando’s head coach said. “I think it's one of those nights where we couldn't put our game on the field and Atlanta took advantage of two silly mistakes that we had in those set plays in the first half. That created for them more comfort on the ball, more confidence. Instead, we were going downwards in the first half.”

“We didn't look urgent today,” Pareja later added. “We were outplayed by the intensity, especially in the middle.”

The Lions feel like a knife that you’ve had for a while. At first, it’s sharp and efficient. But after using it for a while it becomes dull and every single action takes longer. Orlando need to find a way to sharpen up. And fast.

3
Ezequiel Barco supercharged

I genuinely have no idea what’s gotten into Ezequiel Barco. He forced an own goal (kind of) but he truly wowed everyone on Atlanta’s final goal of the night. He’s looked like a wholly different player and person since returning from the Olympics, turning into a crucial and dynamic piece of the Atlanta United puzzle. 

We may never know exactly why he’s suddenly looking like an All-Star caliber player. It may simply be that he’s healthier and fitter than ever. It’s resulting in a player that not only has the physical gifts to succeed, but has added confidence to his high motor style of play.

“The fantastic goal that Barco scored a little bit in transition – around three players – was a reward for Barco because I felt that the defensive part, and not just the defensive part, was great,” Pineda said. “You saw in the 19th minute when he came on the side and went on the ground to block a pass, it was fantastic. That tells me a lot about where Barco is mentally and physically with the team.”

He has single-season career highs in goals (5) and assists (4), finally looking deserving of the record-breaking transfer he arrived stateside with from Argentina’s Independiente. It helps, of course, that Luiz Araujo is there to open up space for...pretty much everyone on the team. Araujo is so dynamic and plays with so much verve that it affects the rest of Atlanta by grabbing the brunt of the opponent’s focus. Barco may be the player that benefits most from their deadline-day signing, who last year won the Ligue 1 title with Lille OSC. 

If Barco is firing on all cylinders because Araujo is firing on all cylinders, then Moreno will keep firing on all cylinders and that should allow Josef to fire on all cylinders. Atlanta are in a positive feedback loop that made its loudest and most joyful noise of the season Friday night. It may just mean that their stretch run is about to be truly special.

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