We all remember MLS Cup 2018, right? How Atlanta United’s blistering pace in transition and lethal directness drove a stake of sadness right into the heart of the Portland Timbers and their fans? Despite the intense anguish of that game, I remember watching that Atlanta team and truly believing they were the most entertaining team I ever saw play in MLS. I begrudgingly respected them as one heck of a soccer team.
Well this year, that heck of a soccer team has only scored one goal in MLS and hasn’t won a game yet. Oh, and their vaunted homecoming game, which was billed as a raucous banner-raising party, turned out to be a sad disappointment. The defending 2018 MLS Cup Champions blew a lead in their home opener against new boys FC Cincinnati, gifting the Orange and Blue their first point in MLS.
This is your “Peak MLS” Emotional Roller Coaster of the Week.
This game was set up to be a coronation. Atlanta had quickly become the crown jewel in MLS, winning the Cup in just their second year of existence. Their electric style of play had captured the attention of the entire league, while their stars on the field had dominated it. So their first home game since winning it all was supposed to be a wild celebration, with 70,000+ bouncing in the Benz. Plus, they were playing the greenest team in MLS, who had just gotten the pants beaten off of them a week before.
FC Cincinnati had played all but one game in their MLS existence before they had to walk into the lion’s den that was Atlanta. And that one game had been a bit less than ideal. After scoring a banger of a first-ever MLS goal early in their game against Seattle (I cheered, I’ll admit it), they surrendered four goals in pretty feeble fashion. Their defense looked all out of sorts, with a clear lack of communication and a defensive shape that looked painfully disjointed. Once-a-Timber Alvas Powell was especially culpable on almost all of Seattle’s goals, getting burned by his lack of positional discipline (stop me if you’ve heard this one before).
So the newest MLS franchise coming off a disaster of an opener was walking into one of the hardest environments in MLS to play in, and was about to play the defending champs who had just finished a season as one of the most ruthless attacking juggernauts the league has ever seen.
You must be thinking: 3 easy points for the Five Stripes. Right?
Bless your heart. You don’t know MLS.
The Ups and Downs
The game started off about as everyone expected. Atlanta United came flying out of the gates, scoring before Fanendo Adi could even be caught offside for the first time. Josef Martinez, just as he has done so many times the past two seasons, blazed past the inexperienced Cincinnati backline and ran onto an excellent through ball, smashing it into the net. After only 5 minutes, the Atlanta steamroller seemed to already be charging ahead.
It felt a lot like the ATL of last season. Josef Martinez was demolishing backlines and kicking a soccer ball with such righteous vitriol that you’d think it had insulted him. Atlanta was playing direct after winning a turnover, utilizing off-the-ball runs and deft passing with lethal efficiency. I saw flashes of that sorrowful night three months ago.
But at the same time, something felt...off. It’s like I was watching a team do its best Atlanta United impression, rather than watching the actual train-whistle-powered machine. Atlanta kept much more of the ball than everyone had grown accustomed to seeing, and rather than immediately drive forward after winning the ball, they took their time to establish possession, passing it between centerbacks and then trying to work it down the wings. Instead of driving their attack forward with the likes of Josef Martinez or Ezequiel Barco or Pity Martinez, they were instead funneling it through…Eric Remedi and Brek Freaking Shea?
Seriously — the team that just last season struck fear into the hearts of opponents with their “we will drive it right at you, and you will see us coming, and no, there is nothing you can do about it” attitude looked more like “okay, we’ll pass it around a little, and then give it to our defensive mid, who will pass to our blonde enigma of a left back, who will then maybe make something happen? Josef score please?” After seeing this team crush my hopes and dreams last year, this performance felt bizarre to watch.
Cincinnati must have thought it was weird too, but they didn’t mind. They stayed in their defensive mid-block all game, and to the amazement of I think everyone watching, they stood their ground. Atlanta kept coming (with the pace and lethality of a disinterested house cat, mind you), but Cincinnati seemed to keep them at bay. The scoring opportunities were half chances more often than not, and the ruthless efficiency in front of goal that Atlanta had shown in their march to the Cup seemed to evaporate.
At times they looked exciting, at times they created dangerous chances, at times they looked like the defending champs. But that’s the point — the defending champs only kinda sorta looked like the defending champs only part of the time. Against a team that had shipped 4 goals the week before! And looked really bad while doing so!
So, obviously, that meant that Cincinnati was going to shock the peaches right out of Atlanta.
The Big Drop
FC Cincinnati actually put the ball in Atlanta’s goal twice this game. Once-a-Timber Fanendo Adi thought he had opened his Eastern Conference account in the 55th minute, but the goal was called back for offside (again, stop me if you’ve heard this one before). But Cincinnati wasn’t deterred. With the introduction of another Once-a-Timber Darren Mattocks as well as US international Kenny Saief to the game, FCC showed that they were not backing down from the fight, as they waited for their chance.
And man did the waiting pay off. MLS credentials be damned, the new boys did indeed find a way to spoil the party. In the 85th minute Saeif delivered a sublime line-breaking ball through the heart of Atlanta’s defense to find the streaking Roland Lamah in on goal. Lamah skipped a shot past Brad Guzan into the bottom corner of the goal, and bam, just like that, the newest team in MLS had tied the game against the champs in their own house. Lamah even mean-mugged right in front of the Atlanta supporters section, which basically means that he’s the new king in Atlanta for at least like a couple days.
And roughly ten minutes of game time later, it was official. Despite all of their pedigree, despite all of their success, despite all of their fans, Atlanta had found a way to fumble away a win in their banner-raising home opener. Despite their lack of experience, despite their lack of bona fides, despite their lack of shots on goal (they only had two, fam), FC Cincinnati were skipping away from Atlanta with a result on the road.
The defending champs had been held at home by a team playing its second MLS game ever. Just like everyone thought.
That Queasy Feeling Afterward
For Cincinnati fans, that must have felt damn special. To get your first point in MLS, on the road, in the home of the defending MLS Cup champions? That’s pretty awesome. And to do it in the gritty fashion that they did, after getting played off the field in Seattle, must have felt extra validating. This FC Cincinnati team just proved that they can go into one of the most hostile places to play in MLS, and silence it. Quite a feather in the cap for year one.
For Atlanta fans, this must have felt like the full force of “Peak MLS” hitting like a freight train. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Josef was supposed to be banging in hat tricks, Pity was supposed to win newcomer of the year for life, and Barco was supposed to be the best 19-year-old to ever play in the league. The prevailing sound at the end of the game should be that gosh darned train whistle, not a chorus of boos.
Well, sorry. The madness that is MLS has other ideas.
Me? I’ll be honest, I was unashamedly rooting for Cincinnati in this game. The pain of MLS Cup 2018 hasn’t yet subsided, and I was very much rooting for a comeuppance for Atlanta. So seeing the new guys pull one out when probably nobody outside of Ohio gave them a shot felt pretty dang good. It was especially cool to see former Timbers like Adi, Powell, and Mattocks find success and spoil the party. My feelings will be much more conflicted come Sunday, but for now, I was damn happy for those dudes.
It will probably all even out. Atlanta United will figure it out under their new coach (...maybe?), and FC Cincinnati will probably face some tougher games and results as their maiden season progresses. But for one afternoon in Georgia, “Peak MLS” was on full and grand display. May its glorious unpredictable madness never leave us.