Just four days after taking the first opposition point against NYCFC at Yankee Stadium, Atlanta United defeated Columbus Crew SC, 2-0, on the road Wednesday, tagging Crew SC with their second home loss in 10 matches.
Atlanta have cemented themselves as true MLS Cup contenders.
It’s well known that Atlanta are at their best at home – 11-3-3 last year and 5-2-1 this season – with the amount of goals at Mercedes-Benz Stadium often overwhelming opponents. But in showing they understand how to take tough points on the road, they’ve taken a big step forward, displaying what seems to be a championship mentality.
Arthur Blank has invested millions of dollars into this team, one he wants to compete for MLS Cup every season and one he has built accordingly. Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra have done a terrific job of finding the right players to blossom in this league. Yes, in this sport, too, you need to spend money to win – but it’s about spending money in a smart way. Atlanta have not only invested in big-time players, but in a brand-new stadium, state-of-the-art training facility and it all gives their fan base something to be proud of and excited about. It's a player’s dream destination.
Every championship team has a star and Atlanta United have recruited two. Miguel Almíron has wowed players and fans alike with his Messi-like dribbling skills, breakaway speed and tireless attacking runs. And now, we’re even seeing him make 60-yard runs to break up opposing counterattacks. He’s MVP caliber – it’s no wonder why Europe’s elite are interested in his services. And this year's MLS Golden Boot leader, Josef Martinez, is the ultimate predator. He creates his own space with his brilliant movement in and around the box and when given a chance is deadly. Columbus found that out in the 30th minute Wednesday:
But know this team is deep. Every single position is filled with a strong, capable player. They have an impressive mix of experience, individual brilliance, youth and solid role players. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan and captain Michael Parkhurst anchor the back, two veterans who understand the ins and outs of the league forming a solid foundation. Another 30-plus regular, Jeff Larentowicz, does a fantastic job of organizing and breaking up plays. Skewing younger, offseason acquisition Darlington Nagbe has finally adjusted to the system and the players around him. His role is to find the spaces in between the lines, and keep possession and he’s doing it well.
Second-year attacker Julian Gressel has developed under head coach Tata Martino, learning what he’s best at and sticking to it, utilizing his endurance, ability to defend and make the right passing decisions to provide a consistent presence throughout. And Argentine Ezequiel Barco, their 19-year-old Designated Player, is a gifted midfielder who can dribble by opponents, create for others and finish. He’s still learning and developing in a new league with a new team, and it’s scary to think of his untapped potential.
And Gerardo "Tata" Martino is the man they trust to get him there, and to get them all to Cup. Every player wants to play for a coach with his experience, a coach that has trained one of the greatest to ever play the game, in Lionel Messi. Martino's ideology, his demand, forces the players to raise their level, to reach their potential. It’s a difficult league for a foreign coach to navigate, but he makes it look easy. His style of play is aggressive attacking while still being able to keep possession and force teams to chase. Applied to the players at his disposal, it allows Atlanta to control the tempo of every game.
They did that again on Wednesday. In a difficult road game against one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, Atlanta never looked vulnerable. They kept possession for most of the game and had the better part of the play. They looked laser-focused on their Supporters' Shield chase. And on the MLS Cup just beyond.