An Atlanta United road trip that seemed to hold the promise of six points and a rocket trip up the MLS Eastern Conference standings, was saved from crashing and burning into the nearby Delaware River by Tyrone Mears, whose goal in the 91st minute finalized a 2-2 tie with Philadelphia on Saturday.
After falling to D.C. United 1-0 on Wednesday in a lifeless display, Atlanta United showed energy against Philadelphia. Despite playing with a man advantage for the final 38 minutes, the Five Stripes couldn’t find a tying goal until Mears hit a looping header for his first goal this season. Philadelphia’s were scored by Roland Alberg and Alejandro Bedoya in the first half. Yamil Asad scored for Atlanta United, also in the first half.
The tying goal started with a cross by Greg Garza that Philadelphia goalkeeper Andre Blake punched away. Mears ran in front of his man and headed the ball back across the goal and in.
“It was valuable, especially since we started the game down 2-0, but we never stopped going for it, we never stopped trying to get the goal,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said. “It is true that we were not precise at times, but even when the team went down to ten men we kept fighting for it and I think we deserved the draw.”
Atlanta United will host Dallas on Sept. 10 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in its next game.
Here are five observations about the game:
The value of the point. Winning on the road in MLS is difficult. Just one team, Toronto, has posted as many wins as losses away from home. It, Montreal and Sporting KC are also the only teams that have as many ties as losses on the road.
So, that Atlanta United (10-8-6) was able to earn a point on the road, which moved it into a tie with Montreal for the sixth and final playoff spot in the East, was massive. It also improved Atlanta United’s record on the road to 4-6-5.
“It was massive,” said midfielder Chris McCann, who was making his second start this season and first in the league since March 31 at Seattle.
Montreal will play at Toronto on Sunday.
Tactics to expect. Atlanta United assumed that Philadelphia would likely try to play similarly to D.C. United. The tactics both used are likely going to be what the Five Stripes see in most of its remaining 10 games.
In a presentation to fans before the game, Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin gave a 3,000-foot view of how his team would try to defend Atlanta United. The key, he said, would be staying compact, with no more than 30 yards between the back line, anchored by rookie-of-the-year candidate Jack Elliott, and striker C.J. Sapong.
Staying tight was what D.C. United did in defeating Atlanta United 1-0 on Wednesday. Compactness robs Atlanta United’s players of space to split lines of midfielders and defenders with passes, and prevents faster players from having to the room to separate from their markers because there’s typically someone else nearby to join in a double-team.
What Philadelphia did worked for most of the game, even when it went down to 10 men for the final 38 minutes after Joshua Yaro received a red card for pulling down Josef Martinez on a clear goal-scoring opportunity.
“They didn't do anything in the second half,” Philadelphia midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. “They didn't create anything. They had nothing. We stayed in our block and they didn't really do anything. They're a great team, this is their first year, they have some great players, but they couldn't get through us.”
The subs. Martino is proving that he knows who to turn to in a given game. Brandon Vazquez, Jacob Peterson and now Mears have scored as subs.
Against Philadelphia, Martino subbed on midfielder Julian Gressel for captain and centerhalf Michael Parkhurst in the 59th minute. Martino has hinted a few times in the past few weeks that the team has been experimenting with a three-man backline in training. They did use it for the final minutes against D.C. United.
Martino then brought on midfielder Jacob Peterson for Hector Villalba and Mears, a fullback and good crosser, for Walkes in the 75th minute.
“Because Anton (Walkes) is a natural center back, so we felt with them having ten men that it was better to put in Mears who is more a natural rightback to give more chances,” Martino said.
Mears hasn’t played since his last start at D.C. United on June 21.
He said he wasn’t trying to score on the game-changing play. He saw Blake was out of the goal, so he was trying to head the ball onto the goal. It happened to go in for his first goal with Atlanta United and second in his MLS career.
“I always have to be ready,” Mears said. “It’s been tough to be on the bench, but I got the call tonight. The coach told me to go forward and that’s what I tried to do.”
A possible problem on defense. For the second consecutive game, it appeared a decision made by midfielder Hector Villalba resulted in a goal for an opponent.
Against D.C. United on Wednesday, Villalba watched Russel Canouse run by him to put in a header that bounced off Michael Parkhurst and into the goal.
Against Philadelphia, Villalba failed to properly a clear a ball. The ball arrived at an awkward angle, so it wasn’t easy to clear. But instead of fighting to win the second ball, Villalba stood a few yards away and watched Giliano Wijnaldum hit a delicate volley into the penalty box from 25 yards away. Alberg ran onto the volley, chested it and shot it past Brad Guzan.
Asked if there may be some accountability for Villalba, whose defense was on-and-off throughout the game, Martino said he wasn’t aware if Villalba had made a mistake, but needed to review the game.
Villalba’s pace on offense makes him a threat to any defense. But his inconsistency on defense isn’t something that has popped up just in the past few games.
Fighting spirit. In four of the past five games, Atlanta United has scored in the final minutes to tie or win.
In four of the past five games, Atlanta United has failed to score more than two goals. In three of the four, the team has scored just once. It was also shutout for just the third time this season at D.C. United.
Atlanta United’s player seemed more proud that it has rallied than concerned that it has needed to rally.
“It just shows how mentally tough we are that for 90 minutes we keep going and teams will take note of that,” McCann said. “We are a fit bunch, so for us to go the 90 minutes shows we are never going to stop until we get what we want to achieve.”
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