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Champions! Atlanta United win MLS Cup in second season

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Atlanta United didn’t need all that long to earn the right to call themselves the champions of MLS, realizing the two-year-long dream of Arthur Blank and Gerardo “Tata” Martino with a 2-0 victory in the 2018 MLS Cup final on Saturday.

[ MORE: Chelsea hand Man City a first loss | Liverpool win to go top of PL ]

2018 MLS MVP — and single-season goals king (31) — Josef Martinez put his prints everywhere as the Venezuelan bagged a goal and an assist in front of an MLS-record crowd of 73,019 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Atlanta enjoyed plenty of possession — more than 56 percent in the first half — but the Timbers midfield and defense did an admirable job to funnel everything from Atlanta out wide once in the final third. From there, Liam Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala could comfortably head cross after cross away from danger.

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All of the pressing, harrying and chasing finally paid off for Atlanta in the 39th minute, when center back Michael Parkhurst pushed higher and higher up the field and tackled the ball away from Jeremy Ebobisse. Martinez was lurking atop the penalty area — narrowly onside — and knew exactly what to do with the ball when it fell to him.

Brad Guzan was called into action for the first time not long after Martinez’s goal, diving to his right to deny a goal-bound header from Ebobisse.

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Atlanta doubled their lead in the 54th minute, courtesy of a cool finish from Franco Escobar at the back post. Miguel Almiron floated his free kick into the box and Martinez flicked it as the first red shirt in the box. Jorge Villafaña was a full yard behind everyone else in white, keeping Escobar onside, but there was still plenty to be done from there.

After just two seasons in MLS, Martino, who coached his final game in Atlanta on Saturday, has secured his place as one of the league’s great influencers — both in terms of the global interest and respect he commanded, and the tactical daredevil mindset he displayed.

The entire organization in Atlanta has raised the bar in MLS — both in terms of on-field product and the numerous financial investments made by the organization — making Saturday’s finale a thoroughly fitting result.

So which domestic players will be in Berhalter’s first USMNT call-ups?

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The amount of players called up to USMNT camps has varied in the last few seasons.

Jurgen Klinsmann called up 23 in 2016 during World Cup qualifying, Bruce Arena opted for 32 in 2017 as he evaluated who could help him right the ship, and Dave Sarachan rang in 30 players last January.

[ MORE: Berhalter introduced by USSF ]

It’s likely new boss Gregg Berhalter is going to look at 30-32 players for the usually domestic-based January camp which will lead up to a Jan. 27 meeting with Panama in Arizona.

That’s not to say Berhalter couldn’t ask permission for some European-based players who are B-teamers or relatively unused abroad (Keaton Parks, Aron Johannsson, Timmy Chandler, Jonathan Klinsmann), but this will be MLS heavy.

Let’s begin with the relatively obvious… and imagine the MLS names who were called up last month alongside the European stars will be a part of Berhalter’s plans.

That means Brad Guzan, Jorge Villafana, Reggie Cannon, Aaron Long, Marky Delgado, Sebastian Lletget, Wil Trapp, and Kellyn Acosta.

Zack Steffen and Walker Zimmerman are expected to seal January deals to Europe, so we’ll abstain from considering them in our 30.

Next, the top season performers in MLS. Crew forward Gyasi Zardes was the highest-scoring American player in MLS and did it under Berhalter’s tutelage, so it would say something about the player and coach if he wasn’t invited to camp.

Dom Dwyer was the second-leading American scorer in MLS — the only two Yanks in the Top 25 — while Teal Bunbury (26th), Chris Wondolowski (35th), Fafa Picault (36th), Christian Ramirez (44th) are in the Top 50.

You added correctly; Only six Americans were in the Top 50 for goal scoring in MLS.

It gets worse with assists. Cristian Roldan was the leading American playmaker with nine, good for 33rd in the league. Paul Arriola (37th), Sean Davis (40th), Miguel Ibarra (41st), Chris Mueller (48th) round out the Top 50.

There were plenty of very decent goalkeeping performances, as pretty much every top backstop this side of Andre Blake is American. Stefan Frei, Evan Bush, David Bingham, and Steffen were pretty good. Nick Rimando is a vet to the program, and Bill Hamid is sure to hear his name.

Anyone who’s read this site knows I love the advanced stats site WhoScored, and it’s MLS player rankings for Americans regurgitates plenty of the above names but tosses in some others: Graham Zusi, Ike Opara, Keegan Rosenberry, Tim Parker, Russell Canouse, Edgar Castillo, Matt Hedges, Steve Birnbaum, and Nick Lima.

Other non-traditional calendar followers include Denmark, where Jonathan Amon plies his trade, and South Korea (remember Mix Diskerud? He was often linked with the Crew, but this still seems a long shot).

Also called up in the past year from MLS and still active? Ben Sweat, Alex Bono, Justin Morrow, Matt Polster, Danilo Acosta, Justen Glad, Darlington Nagbe, Kelyn Rowe, Marlon Hairston, Ian Harkes, Brooks Lennon, Juan Agudelo.

Finally, the young bucks… Unless I’m blanking, no one above is under the age of 23 except for Cannon. Every camp has its kids, and the Yanks just had some serious and proud representation at U-20 World Cup qualification. Philadelphia’s Mark McKenzie (CB), Paxton Pomykal (CM), and Jaylin Lindsey (LB/RB) are interesting for this.

So let’s try… for 30-32. Veteran heavy.

Goalkeepers (4): Guzan, Hamid, Bono, Klinsmann

Defenders (10): Long, Parker, Rosenberry, Birnbaum, Lima, Cannon, Villafana, Glad, McKenzie, Lennon

Midfielders (11): Canouse, Trapp, Michael Bradley, Romain Gall, Davis, Roldan, Arriola, Lletget, Delgado, K. Acosta, Nagbe

Forwards (5): Jozy Altidore, Amon, Zardes, Dwyer, Mueller

RBNY 1-0 Atlanta: Defense sends Atlanta to MLS finals

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Tata Martino’s squad has stormed through the Major League Soccer season on two principles: possession and cutting edge. The playoffs are a completely different animal.

Atlanta United conceded 70% possession to New York and had just four shots on target, but the defense was on hand to hold the charged Supporters’ Shield winners at bay, earning a spot in the MLS Cup finals despite a 1-0 draw that gave the visitors to Red Bull Arena a 3-1 aggregate victory. New York struggled to create the multiple chances they needed to get back into the game, the lone goal coming in second-half stoppage time with seconds remaining.

The game’s possession was dominated from start to finish by New York, who knew they needed to score heavily to have a chance. Atlanta was happy to sit back and absorb pressure, and they used every opportunity to milk the clock. The predictable intensity was palpable, as every whistle was heavily contested and every decision argued intently.

Despite the possessional advantage for the hosts, Atlanta had the two most exciting moments of the first half. The first came literally 10 seconds into the match, as sloppy midfield play off the jump saw Julian Gressel stretch to feed Josef Martinez, but the Venezuelan’s weak effort was saved one-on-one by Luis Robles to keep Atlanta from a game-killing strike so early. Robles was required again off another turnover in the 21st minute, diving low to his right to save a Gressel effort from distance.

Atlanta, a possession-heavy team that Tata Martino drills heavily on playing out of the back, changed its mentality and began booting clearances away to preserve the clean sheet. Tyler Adams had a chance for New York, but skied an effort just before the break with Brad Guzan off his line.

After the break, New York had its best chance yet in the 53rd minute as Kaku sent in a cross that reached Alex Muyl but he couldn’t redirect the shot on target. It appeared that had Muyl let it go, Bradley Wright-Phillips would have been on hand for a good opportunity. Somehow, despite the need for a heavy goal tally, the Red Bulls had just one shot on target through the first hour of the match. Finally, it appeared New York had an opener with 10 minutes to go, but a VAR check determined that Aaron Long fouled Brad Guzan as the Atlanta goalkeeper went to catch the ball.

The goal finally came for New York to spoil the clean sheet as Tim Parker picked up the consolation in the 93rd minute, but it would do the hosts no good other than spoiling the clean sheet. Atlanta’s win avenges New York’s Supporters’ Shield win, snatching the top spot on the final day of the season after Atlanta slipped. Atlanta United will host the MLS Cup, with a better regular season finish than either Sporting KC or Portland.

Atlanta 3-0 New York: Hosts decisive after VAR denies BWP

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For a moment, it appeared Atlanta was truly snake-bitten against the New York Red Bulls. After a dominant first half found them 1-0 up, it appeared Bradley Wright-Phillips had grabbed an away goal soon after the break and given New York life. VAR wiped off the goal, and the hosts went on to a deserved 3-0 victory.

The decision – a correct one by the letter of the law – was surely an enormous moment in this two-legged matchup, and paved the way for a 3-0 Atlanta victory that left Tata Martino with 90 minutes between he and a spot in the MLS playoff final.

Martinez struck just past the half-hour mark, as Tim Parker midjudged a ball into the box from Jeff Larentowicz, and as it floated over the head of the New York defender, it fell to Martinez who settled and finished calmly. Atlanta held over 60% possession in the first half, and held New York to just one shot, with Bradley Wright-Phillips neutralized.

After the break, New York proved far more threatening, and they looked to have drawn level. In the 54th minute, a free-kick flew into the box and eventually came to Wright-Phillips at the top of the box. BWP fired low and to the left, past a helpless Brad Guzan and into the back of the net. After a long delay, VAR ruled out the goal, and while it took some time deducing the reason for the call, it became clear that Alex Muyl was in an offside position and screening Guzan. While the Atlanta goalkeeper likely would not have reached the shot regardless of Muyl’s positioning, the rule was clear and the call was correct.

New York began to slowly work down the possessional advantage for the home side, but struggled to create more big chances. Midfield giveaways proved deadly, and Atlanta used a turnover to move two goals in front. Miguel Almiron threaded in a streaking Julian Gressel who came flying down the left flank, and his cutback across the space in the box was just behind Martinez but came to Franco Escobar who unleashed a howitzer into the top-right corner.

The hosts came close to a third on multiple occasions. Almiron fired across the face of goal wide on a breakaway with nine minutes remaining. Robles also had to make a near-post save in the 87th minute to deny substitute Hector Villalba. Then, the best chance just fell short as Villalba hit the post after toasting two defenders on the break. Finally, the third came in added time as Escobar fed a great through-ball to Villalba who struck with his left foot and slid it inside the left post.

It’s the first victory for Atlanta United in five tries all-time against New York, and a huge one as New York will need a massive comeback to find a way into the MLS final. The second leg will take place Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Three things we learned: Italy v. USMNT

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GENK, Belgium — The U.S. men’s national team lost 1-0 to Italy in Genk, Belgium on Tuesday to finish off its 2018 schedule with a defeat, as they conceded in the 94th minute.

[ MORE: Sarachan out as USMNT head coach ]

Matteo Politano struck with 30 seconds left to condemn the USMNT to a second-straight defeat of this international break, as they closed out the calendar year with a disappointing performance and, eventually, defeat.

[ MORE: Pulisic on captaincy, Dortmund future

Dave Sarachan named the youngest U.S. lineup in the modern era (since 1990) with an average age of 22 years and 71 days, while Christian Pulisic became the youngest captain in that era. Italy’s team was a mixture of youth and experience as Ethan Horvath made several fine stops but couldn’t preserve the shutout for the USMNT.

Here’s what we learned from a tight encounter in Belgium.


HORVATH, PULISIC, ADAMS STAND TALL

Three of the USMNT’s standout performers in Genk were captain Pulisic, midfielder Tyler Adams and goalkeeper Ethan Horvath. The former looked on a level of his own among players wearing a U.S. jersey, buzzing around the Italian defense and trying to make things happen. A superb run and cross down the left and then a lovely scooped pass, both to Josh Sargent, showcased his quality on the ball. The only problem for Pulisic was that he didn’t see enough of it. With long balls pumped up to him, Pulisic didn’t win many aerial duels against Leonardo Bonucci but his best work was done dropping off Josh Sargent and picking passes.

At the other end of the pitch Horvath stood tall to deny Italy’s captain Bonucci a clear goal, tipped another dipping effort over and then pushed a dangerous cross in the box away right before half time. And in the second half Horvath saved with his feet as Kevin Lasagna was clean through on goal, pushed Vincenzo Grifo’s shot wide and denied Lasagna again. The Club Brugge stopper enhanced his chances of challenging Brad Guzan and Zack Steffen for the No. 1 jersey, and a year after his horror mistake allowed Portugal to score in Sarachan’s first friendly in charge, Horvath took his second chance and deserved a clean sheet.

In midfield Tyler Adams was brave on the ball in front of the back three, tried to get things going in attack and was the most composed U.S. player on the pitch. The New York Red Bulls midfield, still a teenager, will no doubt be a big part of this team moving forward and he, Pulisic (obviously) and Horvath proved they will be in many USMNT squads to come. The rest struggled a little.


YOUNGSTERS OVERWHELMED

When you name the youngest USMNT lineup in modern history, you’d expect a few bumps in the road during the game. That is exactly what happened. A back three of Cameron Carter-Vickers, Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long, plus Shaq Moore playing out of position at left wing-back, was undone by simple long balls over the top as the USMNT dropped deeper and deeper throughout the game. The U.S. only had 26.5 percent possession and were happy to sit deep and try to hit Italy on the break, just like they did against France in Lyon.

Unlike the game against England last week, this was nowhere near a full-strength USMNT lineup and you could make an argument that only two players (Adams and Pulisic) would be regular starters moving forward.

The likes of Zimmerman, Long, Moore and Cannon were decent enough and got plenty of the reps with the USMNT under pressure for most of the game. One thing is now for sure, whoever is in charge for the January camp and beyond: experimenting needs to stop. The past 13 months has shown us what over 50 players can do. Now a permanent coach needs to select his best squad and work with them each camp moving forward.


SARACHAN’S REIGN SUMMED UP IN 90 MINUTES

Dave Sarachan’s record after 12 games in charge of the USMNT reads 3-5-4, as he set his team up for the draw against Italy but didn’t get it.

Just like they’ve done against top teams in the past, and they did against France in Lyon back in June, the U.S. sat back, soaked up pressure and tried to grab a clean sheet. It wasn’t pretty and didn’t work, but it could prove to be a valuable learning experience for Sarachan’s young team.

The past 13 months has seen him steady the ship after the nightmare of not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, but in truth there are still more questions than answers when it comes to what is next for the U.S.

Sarachan has now handed debuts to 23 players, more than any other U.S. manager in the modern era, and his task was to try and restore pride in the program after the World Cup qualifying debacle. He may have done a bit of that, mostly thanks to putting his faith in youth, but the U.S. has pretty much stood still in 2018. Some players have taken their chances, others haven’t and, perhaps most importantly, the USMNT still don’t have a permanent head coach.

That is the biggest issue of all, but that is no longer Sarachan’s problem.