Here are three takeaways from a game that somehow blew my expectations out of the water. I’m struggling to find the words for how entertaining this thing was from start to finish.
HIGHLIGHTS: Atlanta United FC vs. Philadelphia Union | April 27, 2021
Asking for anything even nearing this would have been selfish and it delivered anyway. Actually, you know what, gonna go run some laps to see if I can get some of this out before I just stream of conscious this out.
Philly took Atlanta’s best punch on the chin, survived, waited and then pounced as soon as they got an opportunity. As soon as Atlanta wobbled, they kept punching. Over and over. Just an absolutely ruthless performance from a team that showed their experience tonight.
Even after getting smacked around a bit in the first half, they came out and put in a performance that not only would have been stellar in an Audi MLS Cup Playoff game, but quickly became elite by Concacaf standards. They hit the ground and stayed there when they needed to. They knocked the ball away. They frustrated and jostled Atlanta so much that when things did come apart for the Five Stripes, Atlanta’s young group still learning how to execute for a full 90 couldn’t keep up.
“In Concacaf it’s about surviving and advancing,” Jim Curtin said. “We survived in the first half, and the we played some pretty good soccer in the second half.”
Beyond all the cohesion and execution, you had Andre Blake making key saves, they killed Atlanta in transition, a homegrown came on and scored, Jose Martinez put in an all-time Jose Martinez performance (we’ll get there) and Jim Curtin clearly put the effort he needs to put into his outfit to consistently rank among the league’s best dressed. This is a peak Philadelphia game.
I’m not going to say it’s their best game. I remember the 5-0 mollywhopping of Toronto last season and you do too. And again, a couple of breaks the other way and we could have been talking entirely about Atlanta tonight. Curtin even admitted as much post game. But a win that all but assures they’ll move on to a CCL semifinal is among, if not the most important win in team history.
Curtin said after the game that Philadelphia don't always play the most beautiful soccer. However, if you know what this team is about and understand the ethos of a group fully committed to their team’s identity, tonight was about as beautiful as it could get for Philadelphia.
Every fiber of my being felt fully prepared to write the “ATLANTA IS BACK NO SERIOUSLY THIS TIME” column. Instead, I’m stuck trying to explain that Atlanta fans should feel as good as anyone can feel after a 3-0 loss.
It’s been two years in Atlanta since I’ve seen a team at Mercedes-Benz Stadium come out and win nearly every duel, attack space and completely control a game from the outset. Atlanta repeatedly clattered into the Union and won the ball. If they didn’t, they immediately had a teammate there to finish the job.
In his postgame press conference, Kacper Przybylko conceded that Atlanta came out with an impressive amount of physicality. It all nearly resulted in an early lead. It should have resulted in an early lead. The first half finished with Atlanta at 1.3 xG to just .08 from Philadelphia. Andre Blake is always and forever going to Andre Blake it seems like though.
In the second half, a goal came that shouldn’t have on a corner. Atlanta kept pushing. Minutes later, Atlanta got burned on the break for another goal. Atlanta kept pushing. They got burned again. I guess there’s no shame in going out with honor, but man. In a two-legged tie, sometimes you have to know when to pull back.
Y’all remember that terrible golf movie Tin Cup? You can’t just be Kevin Costner smashing the ball into the lake over and over again until you finally reach the green on your 400th try. That’s stupid. That whole movie is stupid.
Fortunately, that knowledge will come with experience. It can be tough to remember, but this Atlanta team is far younger than I think most people realize. There were teenagers and early 20s kids all over the pitch for Atlanta tonight. Many, maybe all of them, brought a playoff level intensity to this game. Not just the intensity, but the ability clearly and repeatedly appeared as well.
Santiago Sosa (21-years-old) might just end the year as a top-three defensive midfielder in the league. Jim Curtin had a similar assessment earlier in the week and I bet after tonight, that opinion is even higher. He was everywhere and watching him switch the field with long diagonal’s is breathtaking before the consistency of them just makes you giddy.
Franco Ibarra (19-years-old) is phenomenally unafraid to do dirty work and also showed off an ability to spray the ball across the field tonight.
Miles Robinson (24-years-old) did Miles Robinson things — winning one v. ones, tracking down runners, etc. — for large portions of this game until things unraveled at the end. And George Bello (19-years-old) is continuously making strides tactically in Gaby Heinze’s somewhat complex system.
This could have been the Atlanta is back column. Instead it turned into “Atlanta isn’t quite there.” You’d imagine they take a pretty big lesson from tonight though. And everyone in Atlanta should feel as positive as possible about the direction of the team.
Jose Martinez picked up a yellow card at just around six minutes in. He’s suspended for the second leg. Of course, naturally, that meant he began to take a more nuanced, measured approach to everything he di ... hahahahha no no, I’m totally kidding, he immediately fouled someone else and continued to make dangerous and effective tackles throughout the game.
I’ve only been able to appreciate El Brujo from afar, and my goodness what we’ve all missed out on by not being able to regularly see him in person. Not only did he continue making those tackles with perfectly measured abandon, he embraced a heel role to a level that should truly be the standard in MLS from here on out.
He wasted time. He kicked the ball away. He stayed on the floor. He actively looked to get in people’s faces when the confrontations ratcheted up later in the game. And he had absolutely no problem riling up the Atlanta crowd after the third goal.
He is always playing on a knife’s edge and no one balances it better in the league right now. I’ve said it before, but he’s not the crazy guy in the fight. He’s the guy crazy enough — and smart enough — to pretend to be. He knows exactly how to rile you up without losing control himself. And I fully believe his little actions throughout the game built up enough to lead to the larger displays of frustration toward the end of the game. He’s a genius. And I’m desperate to make sure he’s not misunderstood.