It wasn't so long ago that these fallible fingers typed of Atlanta United, "It's almost as if this isn't an Atlanta team at all." These same fingers were guilty, sort of, of likening the '96 Braves to the '27 Yankees after Game 2 of a World Series. (So maybe it's me. Maybe I'm the jinx.)
A not-so-funny thing happened to Atlanta United on its way to a second consecutive MLS Cup. The reigning champs blew the Eastern Conference final every bit as much as the Braves frittered away the '96 Fall Classic and the Falcons – Arthur M. Blank's other footballers – wasted that 28-3 lead. It jumped ahead of Toronto FC 1-nil in the fourth minute and should have clinched it in the 11th. But Josef Martinez, Atlanta United's shining light for every day of its existence, flubbed a penalty.
A 2-0 lead at this level of soccer isn’t quite 28-3, but it’s not far off. A 2-0 lead would have forced Toronto out of its defensive shape, not that it managed one over those first few minutes. Atlanta United had scored a comically easy goal, Ezequiel Barco finding Pity Martinez running free, P. Martinez then feeding Julian Gressel. Soon P. Martinez was nudged by Michael Bradley in the box and referee Alan Kelly was pointing to the spot and we were wondering, “What’s the soccer equivalent of a 10-run lead after one inning?”
We’ll never know. Josef Martinez, finisher extraordinaire, struck a tepid shot that goalkeeper Quentin Westberg saved. The game changed there. The game was lost there.
Afterward, coach Frank de Boer revealed that J. Martinez tweaked a hamstring in training Monday. "It was a small injury," de Boer said. "He chose his moments. Sometimes you saw he's not the Josef we want to see. But in the second half when he made his sprints you could see nothing was really wrong."
Then: “If I look back, I would make the decision (to play him) again.”
Josef Martinez, a great player, had a bad night at a bad time. This happens with Atlanta teams. (Not just Atlanta teams, we stipulate, though often seems that way.) Atlanta United could never overcome the 2-0 lead that never was. Three minutes later, there was no lead at all.
A long diagonal ball from defender Laurent Ciman found Nicolas Benezet down the left wing. Benezet ducked inside and curled a shot around the diving Brad Guzan, who didn’t react until it was too late. One-all.
Said de Boer: “It was really the first time they tried to attack us.”
The tie stood from the 14th minute until the 78th, a span over which Toronto managed two shots on target. It was one-way traffic all night, Atlanta United having 59.5 percent of possession and outshooting the visitors 18-4.
Said Toronto coach Greg Vanney: “We probably didn’t win very many categories except for one – 2-1 (the final score). From a soccer perspective, they were a better team.”
An Atlanta team played better in a postseason game but lost. Where have we heard that before? Vanney again: “Sometimes in a one-off game on the road you’ve got to come up with ways.”
His team did. It stopped Atlanta United’s break by whatever means necessary. (Said Vanney: “You have to use all your resources. Sometimes a foul is a resource.”) Atlanta United will gripe forever that the winning goal came off an uncalled foul that divested midfielder Darlington Nagbe of the ball and led to a Toronto counterattack.
Said de Boer: “It was one minute of a lack of concentration. Darlington Nagbe was on the ground. We thought it was a foul.”
Toronto substitute Nick DeLeon took the ball outside the Atlanta United box. He pivoted. No defender pursued. DeLeon loosed a right-footed screamer that flew over Guzan into the top left corner. The visitors, content just to hang around, were bound for the final.
De Boer: “I spoke to (Vanney). He said, ‘We didn’t deserve it.’ They are in the final. That’s the beauty of sports. It’s part of life. We had a wonderful season.”
Vanney: “What I said to him was that basically we didn’t play well. ‘Deserve’ isn’t a word that’s fair to us. From an ideological standpoint, that wasn’t what I wanted to see. From a practical standpoint, it was what we needed. ... We managed situations. I wouldn’t say it was perfect. We kept ourselves in it.”
De Boer again: “We controlled 95 percent of the game of the game. ... I was really happy with our chances.”
For Atlanta United, repeating as champion was never going to be easy – though the way this tournament had fallen, a second title could have been less strenuous than the first. Last year’s playoffs required two road games. This time Atlanta United wouldn’t have had to board a plane. Toronto upset New York City FC, the East’s top seed, in the conference semis. Seattle upset LAFC, the overall No. 1 seed, in the West final. Everything had broken right for Atlanta United – until it didn’t.
But let’s not be too hard on this city’s best team. More than any sport, soccer is a game of fine margins. You take 14 more shots than the other guy, you should win. Sometimes, though, you don’t. Said de Boer: “What did Toronto (do) well? They defended well.”
To be fair, Toronto also put the ball in the net twice as many times as the home side. There’ll be no championship game staged under the famous roof on Nov. 10. Without Tata Martino, gone to coach Mexico, and Miguel Almiron, playing for Newcastle in the Premier League, Atlanta United had itself a very nice season. Like most Atlanta seasons, alas, it just won’t yield a league championship.