The last time there was a placekicking tour de force inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium like the one Atlanta United’s Kevin Kratz put on Saturday, the protagonist wore goofy googles and played your daddy’s kind of football.
Kratz bent not one but two free kicks around a wall of Montreal players with hands protecting jewels, then past poor, sprawling goalkeeper Evan Bush. No doubt, it was the best of this kind of work since Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship made three field goals in January’s national championship game against Alabama, including the 51-yarder in overtime.
Only this time, the kicks translated into victory, a 4-1 win over the Impact.
Kratz’s kicks helped crack the defensive shell Montreal had built during the first half Saturday. And once that dissolved, the field suddenly seem to grow wider and Miguel Almiron seemed to get even faster. And he’s already quicker than a political rumor. His two goals, one on the full run, another on a penalty kick, rounded out United’s late-game flurry.
There was nothing in Saturday’s result that contributed to the further education of a soccer novice – i.e., me. Just in its second season, Atlanta United already is playing games it is supposed to win as a matter of pedigree. When the leading goal-scoring team in its conference meets the team that has yielded the most in the conference, the least you should expect is a 4-1 victory.
This pushed Atlanta United’s unbeaten streak to seven this season, which is pretty good considering it has played only eight games. This winning is becoming so redundant.
It was the method of victory that proved most instructive Saturday. It was a day to get to know the ins and outs of the free kick. Mostly ins, in Kratz’s case.
For instance, one of the real quirks of this game is that the decision on who takes said kick – a pretty important one considering that soccer scoring opportunities come along about as rarely as true love – is traditionally left to the players.
Can you imagine any other coach in any other game ceding that kind of power to the players? Yeah, why don’t you guys talk among yourselves and decide who’s going to return this punt this time? But in soccer, that’s the norm.
Which is why one questioner felt it necessary to ask Five Stripes manager Tata Martino if he might have considered running out and tackling anyone else had they lined up to take these free kicks. For Kratz, who is hitting .750 on these things (three goals in four attempts) is the acknowledged team free kick specialist.
“The players ultimately decide,” Martino said.
“On the biggest teams in the world, the biggest figures are the ones who want to take the free kicks. And a lot of times they line up to take it and they don’t recognize or cede to other specialists on the team,” Martino said.
At least there has been a conversation, Martino said, between himself and the stars of this team, urging them to recognize Kratz’s special skill when he is on the field.
They can’t help but witness it on a daily basis. “I’m the one who gives him all the confidence to go out there and do his thing,” joked Five Stripes goalkeeper Brad Guzan. “We all knew what was coming because we’ve seen it so many times in training.”
Fortunate for Atlanta United that Martino subbed in Kratz in the second half. His scoring kicks Saturday, from approximately 20 and 35 yards away, were wonderful studies in movement and the geometry of arcs. He was out there throwing nasty sliders with his feet.
Let it be known that this Kratz craft doesn’t come without a significant investment.
“For me it’s just a lot of practice,” Kratz said. “Some guys have the talent to do it, some guys don’t. I just need to practice and that’s what I need to keep on doing. Every day after practice – five here, 10 there – and hopefully I have more chances to score.”
So, he’s asked, when might “Bend it Like Kratz” be coming to a theater near us. At least a German-language version.
“I don’t know. I think I have to hit a few more in goal to get a movie,” he said.
If nothing else, Saturday was a day to file away should placekicker Matt Bryant ever start showing his age, and the Falcons are in the market for a little help at that position.