Brad Guzan - Atlanta United - October 7, 2020
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta are unrecognizable, Union were thrilling and Sporting KC can finish No. 1 | Steve Zakuani

Atlanta United continue to disappoint, the Union got the statement win they’d been needing, and Sporting make their case for best team in the West.

New low point for Atlanta in 2020

Although 2020 has been nothing but full of surprises, you can still consider me absolutely shocked that we are just two weeks away from the end of the season and Atlanta United are outside of the playoff spots thanks to their latest 2-1 loss to D.C. United. And time is running out for the Five Stripes. 

To understand why this is such a major development, we have to remind ourselves of what this team once was. ATLUTD paired one of the best goal scorers this league has ever seen with one of its most dynamic playmakers ever. They were winning trophies and breaking attendance records while producing one of the most attack-minded styles of play we’ve seen in this league. Atlanta were on the verge of becoming the first true super team in MLS: LA Galaxy fans may feel they earned that title in 2010-2014, but for all their on-field success and star power, they never quite matched the full package that Atlanta provided, especially in terms of stadium atmosphere.

So how did we get here with Atlanta?

Let’s first focus on this season and their loss on Saturday night. Both D.C. United goals are ones that Atlanta never gave up so easily just as recently as last season. The set-piece marking on the first goal left a lot to be desired and for the winning goal, D.C.'s Gelmin Rivas had way too much time to bring the ball down in the box and pick his spot. That should never happen, let alone in the 92nd minute. Everyone talks about how they miss Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron, but we should really realize just how important someone like Michael Parkhurst was, as well. What Parkhurst lacked in size, he made up for with his timing and marking — skills that may have helped to prevent one or both of D.C.’s goals.

There are also issues at the other end of the pitch, of course. The Pity Martinez signing didn’t work out, and Ezequiel Barco rarely shows the level of performance we thought he’d be producing on a weekly basis. Maybe we should accept that he is who he has shown us he is: a talented but wildly inconsistent player. Although they generated some decent looks against D.C., they have never looked fluid in the final third for most of the season. Marcelino Moreno definitely has talent, but I feel Atlanta are still two or three attacking pieces away (plus Josef) from being anything like they used to be.

Cascadia beware: Sporting can finish No. 1

I’ve spent the last few weeks talking about the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers when it comes to the top seed in the West, but there is no question that Sporting still have every chance of beating out both those teams. For that to happen, they will need to be the team we saw on Saturday night in each of their remaining games: They walloped the Colorado Rapids 4-0.

When Alan Pulido and Johnny Russell both play well, they can be frightening to play against. Although he’s gotten a few goals (watch his latest one below), I don’t see Pulido as an out-and-out No. 9. He’s at his best when he’s dropping into spaces and linking up with his teammates — sort of like what Firminho does so well for Liverpool.

When Pulido drops, two things happen: 1) The center backs follow him, leaving space in behind for the likes of Russell to run into, or 2) The center backs play conservatively and stay home, which allows Pulido to turn and drive at them before slipping passes to teammates. It’s not a good position for the opponent to find themselves in.

Defensively Sporting Kansas City haven’t always looked as solid as they probably could, partly due to rotations forced by injuries. But on Saturday night they were simply excellent. SKC limited the Rapids to just two shots on goal and never truly looked vulnerable.

Now, will Peter Vermes's side look just as solid against a team that hasn’t been idle for four weeks? It’s hard to say, but if center back Roberto Puncec can command the backline the way he did today — winning headers, being aggressive in his marking and keeping the team organized — there is no reason they can’t pick up at least six points from the nine that remain and cement themselves as the top seed.

Hats off to Curtin: Union were thrilling

Toronto FC are still the best team in the league, but just barely. I can’t say enough good things about the job Jim Curtin has done with the Philadelphia Union. It was thrilling to watch his team get 27 shots against this Toronto team, all part of a memorable 5-0 thumping.

We talk about Brenden Aaronson a lot, as we should, and we’ve discussed Anthony Fontana lately because of his form, but the Union's strength lies in their variety of weapons.

On Saturday night, it was Sergio Santos stealing the show with his hat trick, but they’ve been getting production and good performances from so many players all year. Jamiro Monteiro, who has been very good when deployed centrally this season, was exceptional on the left-hand side and proved himself a real handful for Toronto all game long. Jose Andres "El Brujo" Martinez offered the back four protection in a way that rendered Alejandro Pozuelo — the 2020 MVP in my book — completely ineffective for the time he was on the pitch.

For all the good Philadelphia have accomplished this season, they had been missing a statement win against one of the challengers for the top seed in the East. They had failed to beat Columbus, Orlando and Toronto so far this year and so this was very much a confidence-boosting win that they sorely needed. There is every chance they will have to go through this very same Toronto team if they have MLS Cup aspirations.

Quick Takeaways

Player of night

My player of the night has to be Sergio Santos, simply because it’s hard to look past anyone who scores a hat trick in such a big game.

Beyond that, he now has five goals in the last six games and he seems to be hitting form at just the right time for Curtin’s side.

Performance of night

Philly fans, please don’t get mad, but I am going to give this one to D.C. United.

Saturday's win in Atlanta was their third game unbeaten and their second straight win away from home. D.C. didn’t necessarily play exceptionally well, but for a team that has struggled to generate chances all season long, their ruthless efficiency was impressive to see: two goals from three shots on target. In fact, they’ve scored six goals in their past three games from just 11 shots on goal. It was a win they wouldn’t have pulled off just a few weeks ago.

Should Minnesota's goal have counted?

Video Assistant Referees are not permitted to recommend Video Reviews for the awarding of corner kicks, but that doesn't change my feelings that FC Cincinnati were hard done by in their loss to Minnesota.

We’re at the point of the season when every point means that little bit more and so to concede a game-winning goal off a corner kick that never should have been awarded is a bitter pill to swallow. You can only wonder whether Video Review will ever be changed to allow for plays like these to be reviewed in the future. 

All that being said, Cincinnati should have focused on defending the corner and trying to see the game out, but it’s hard to look past the poor decision that led to this defeat.