After the briefest of lapses, soccer is back. And here you thought that after one bad month it would just go away, like Blockbuster or the Alliance of American Football?
Atlanta United has returned to the business of being the most trusted franchise in town, soothing the restless Millennial breast and serving its ultimate purpose of making this city the envy of at least one league.
Sunday, the opponent was Orlando City. That’s a heated rival, some would say. But in reality, it’s a team United has continued to treat more like a mild rash (5-0-2 all-time against O City). And even if the score was only 1-0 in favor of the home team, in actuality, several important points were made.
Chief among them was that Pity Martinez can score a goal in this hemisphere. South America’s player of the year in 2018, Martinez was imported to fill the void of the departed Miguel Almiron. He had spent the first quarter of the season less involved in the post-game stat sheet than the person printing it out. On a deft collaboration with Hector Villalba, though, Martinez at long last scored his first Atlanta goal Sunday, drilling a shot into the upper corner of net from 17 yards out.
Finally, there was a sighting of a Pity party, a real, live goal-scoring celebration by United’s “other” Martinez — as opposed to record-setting scorer Josef Martinez. And it was an effusive, happy one. “To get rid of the bad energy from not having scored in a while,” Pity explained.
“Zero frustration,” he said when asked about his introductory lack of contribution. As United sputtered in the early stages of its MLS championship defense, going 0-2-2 in its first four games, scoring but two goals along the way, that part of the blame not focused on new coach Frank de Boer fell at Pity’s feet.
But he knew all struggles were temporary. “I come from a big club in South America (River Plate in Argentina), well-known around the whole world, so there was zero pressure,” Martinez said post-game Sunday. “I had the confidence of my teammates that it was going to come at some point. And today it came and the team can keep winning which is the most important.”
Lo and behold, Sunday was United’s fourth straight win, as well as its fourth straight shutout. This is not yet exactly the high-octane attack of de Boer’s predecessor, Tata Martino. Atlanta United, in fact, entered Sunday next to last in the MLS in goals scored. But we’ll go on a limb here and say that United will not lose another game in which it yields zero goals. Just maybe the next coach knows a little about stitching together a winning product, and shouldn’t be fired before he gets a chance to finish unpacking.
The pressure is immense on the newcomers to a team that has known nothing but winning. When it doesn’t — as the first month of the season — they are the most obvious targets for discontent. But as goalkeeper Brad Guzan said, “We’re on a big club; we do big things here. There’s pressure on all of us to perform at a high level.”
Standing on his clean-shaven head Sunday, Guzan made a couple dramatic saves. Diving headlong to his right 32 minutes in, Guzan got his big Mickey Mouse gloves on a point-blank Orlando shot and kept in motion what is now the second longest scoreless streak in MLS this season.
Guzan can be one of the more demanding voices when things are going wrong, just as he is one of the leading upbeat voices in these better times.
“Ultimately goals change games and wins change the atmosphere. That’s natural,” he said. “We never let (the slow start) get to us in such a way that it was the end of the world. It was getting everyone on the same page with what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to play and you’re starting to see that now.”
Time has been kind to Atlanta United. It has used this last month well, rounding into the kind of form that is the least expected of this franchise.
This is a most busy, important time for a defending champion that went its first month without winning a MLS game. It has now won the first four of an eight-game-in-27-days stretch that will go a long way toward defining the season. Upcoming is a long grinding road trip from Vancouver to New York to Salt Lake City.
Bring it on, said team captain Michael Parkhurst. “We’re getting into a rhythm and these games are coming fast for us now and it’s welcome when you’re on a roll like we are right now,” he said.
“The confidence level is very high and it continues to grow. It’s nice when Josef got on the scoreboard a couple games ago and Pity gets on the scoreboard today. Different guys are stepping up every game. Everyone understands their role a little better now,” Parkhurst said.
And the new guy seems to have caught on pretty quickly just how important it is to keep Atlanta United at a certain exalted level. Lapses can happen, but they simply can’t be prolonged. Because, well, they just never have been and nobody around here would quite know how to react.
“We have to keep writing the history of this club day after day. And over time it’s going to be great,” Pity Martinez said through his interpreter.