Atlanta United’s place atop American professional soccer has been all too brief and is already being hotly challenged. Seems there’s no getting fat and content in this game, which helps explain why everyone playing it has the body fat of a celery stalk.
The great challenge now comes from the west coast and one city that dares to hold the top two places in that conference’s standings. The first of those, Los Angeles FC, has the league’s best record, its top goal scorer (Carlos Vela’s the name), and overall scores with the frequency that was once in fashion here (55 goals through 21 games this season, compared to Atlanta United’s 41 in 22 games). LAFC now possesses many of the gifts and traits that was Atlanta United’s just months ago — although with a stadium of modest size, it can never hope to inflate its attendance figures to anywhere near the level of the head-counters at the Benz.
How convenient, then, that Atlanta United will be in L.A. on Friday night, so certain questions of supremacy can be thrashed out head-to-head.
The sweep of a MLS season goes from spring to fall, and it’s risky to elevate one game above the rest. But this single game against LAFC, to be nationally televised after your bedtime, has the aroma of a very telling one.
No doubt, the coach is up for a statement kind of game. Now if only his guys will jump on board. “If I were a player right now I’d have that feeling that, OK, everybody is saying (LAFC) is the best team, let’s show them that we are the best team,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “That eagerness, that pride you want to have – I want to see that from my players that they think, hey, everyone is talking about LAFC, let’s talk about us after this game.”
Atlanta United has begun to resemble Atlanta United again. It is winning games – the last two by a combined 7-0 (five of those goals coming against a Houston team playing a man down). It is climbing the standings, second in the East as of the moment. Josef Martinez is back and very goal oriented, except for one certifiably ugly penalty kick Sunday. Big acquisition Pity Martinez, too quiet for too long, is coming off a one-goal, one-assist effort against D.C. United. And maybe the new coach doesn’t really employ a strategy that includes his players wearing straitjackets.
Summarizing the change of late, midfielder Justin Meram said, “Stronger mentality going into games, stronger offensively.”
Establishing whether that is has been a real step toward regaining its place atop the MLS food chain or just a mirage is kind of the point of Friday’s game.
The optimist could class this game as a potential MLS Cup preview, but only if Atlanta United figures out how to stop turning to slush on the road.
Last season’s title team expressed itself all over the place, going 10-5-2 away from home. This year, Atlanta United is 3-7-0 apart from the warm embrace of its own supporters, about as bad on the road as Napoleon at the end. Who couldn’t be energized with the lager-soaked wind of 60,000 or so chanting fanatics at your back? It’s on the road where Atlanta United must supply all of its own power. It’s on the road where it must ultimately prove itself.
“We talk about (the road record) a lot,” Meram said. “The way we play at home, we need to have that same mentality, that same work rate, that same fight on the road. I think some games we’ve lacked it a little bit.”
On the road, he said, Atlanta United has had the tendency to take its foot off the gas, and start driving 45 in the left lane. “Now we need to accelerate even more, with this game coming up, especially,” he said.
“I think we showed, especially the last two games, the spirit that we want to see. I have confidence that what we’ve shown in our home games we also can show away,” de Boer said.
“Let’s start with LAFC.”
The trip back to being Atlanta United again has a big stop-over Friday, 2,200 miles away from home.
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