This is a bold new generation of fan we salute today. One to whom soccer is so important. One that invented going viral, in a good way. For it gathered in force Saturday night to celebrate Atlanta United’s MLS home opener.
What a committed group. OK, Boomer, you’ve had lots of fun at the expense of these hipsters and their cute team scarves, imagining their tailgates of hummus and hard seltzers. But, now, give them their due.
Not enough that they had to spit in the eye of the novel coronavirus, which has turned the idea of large public gatherings into a risk akin to eating that undated leftover kung pao shrimp at the back of the fridge. But come they did to The Benz, to the announced tune of 69,301 (who knows the actual number, but it was still an encouraging mob).
None stretched yellow tape to set up six-foot perimeters around their seats, instead communing shoulder to shoulder as usual. Their chants were not muffled by antimicrobial masks. There was to Saturday such an encouraging sense of normalcy — and who knew soccer would be the game capable of providing that?
Then there was the frightening prospect of life without Josef Martinez, a life that some pictured as a wasteland of 0-0 draws and opposing goalkeepers who bring folding lounge chairs to work.
So, secondly, a salute to Atlanta United for discovering a way to score not one, but two goals Saturday night on the way to a 2-1 victory over FC Cincinnati.
They have beaten an expansion team (Nashville) and one that set a league record for most goals allowed and worst goal differential last season (Cincinnati) to begin this season. But those are still two wins and six points out of six possible in the standings, better than a year ago when this team started 0-1-1, including a draw to that same woeful Cincinnati.
United head coach Frank de Boer seemed quite heartened by how his team has come together and responded to some early trauma. “We have confidence in every player we start and that we know this is our quality and try to show it every game and understand that hey, if we have to play a little reserved we can do that, if we want to play really offensive, we can do that,” he said. “I think we are much better than last season.”
Where Martinez was good for almost a goal a game, United now has two players who have gone for goals in both its first two MLS games. Ezequiel Barco and Emerson Hyndman struck again, to give hope that this season is not necessarily going to take on the look of Dean Smith running a hands-free version of the four corners.
Martinez’s replacement at striker did not score, but he did contribute in a time-honored fashion that his European coach with an adorable European vocabulary could really appreciate. “(Adam) Jahn worked his bollocks off, he was running everywhere,” de Boer said
“He can be very proud what he showed today.”
In Barco and Pity Martinez, United has the speed and flair on both sides of the field to still be formidable offensively. This team spent upward of $15 million to bring Barco here two seasons ago season, and between injury and national team call-ups, he has missed nearly a seasons worth of action in that time. What he is doing now is what is required of a player of his standing week after week, month after month.
“That’s always the case when some important player is injured or not there anymore, other players feel responsibility to step in that gap,” de Boer said. “I think Pity is one of those players. Also Barco. There’s the feeling, hey, we are the guys who have to lift up this team.”
Said Hyndman: “We still have a very good attacking team, with Pity and Barco. And Adam is fitting in really well. We have to do it in a little bit different way, maybe a little more build-up maybe, not so direct (as in Josef’s bold rushes goalward). But it’s something we can build on and get better.
“Everyone has to step up a little bit more especially on the attacking third. We can’t rely on (Josef) for goals any more , we’ve got to create our own chances.”
The schedule is going to get far more demanding. Attrition will take its toll. The loss of Josef Martinez has to be dearly felt sooner or later. But not Saturday. For one night, all manner of fears were allayed.
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