Josef Martinez

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Brilliant Barco assist helps Atlanta outlast New England

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The game in 200 words (or less): Highly-favored at home, the reigning champions needed their goalkeeper to keep them alive against a New England Revolution side that only made the postseason via MLS’ decision to let almost everyone make it. Yes, Atlanta United dodged a bullet as Brad Guzan made six saves and Ezequiel Barco’s slick pass set up Franco Escobar for a brilliant winner with about 20 minutes to play. New England fought to the very death, but couldn’t take advantage of the absence of Miles Robinson.

[ MORE: Lampard “pleased” for Pulisic ]

Soon-to-retire Michael Parkhurst appeared to dislocate his shoulder late in a challenge with Cristian Penilla, and needed a lot of help to get off the field. Hopefully that wasn’t the last we see of him.

Atlanta will host either Philadelphia or the New York Red Bulls on Thursday evening.

Three things we learned

1. Guzan overcomes blip to stand tall: The longtime USMNT backup made a major error and nearly allowed New England in front but was otherwise sensational over 90 minutes in Georgia.

2. Martinez off, and Martinez off: While Frank De Boer opted to keep Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez out of the Starting XI, it was his star striker who nearly made him pay for the decision. Josef Martinez was not on his game, and lashed a should-be winner from his office over the goal in the first half before being stopped on by Turner on a 1v1 as the match neared stoppage time.

3. Barco makes the difference: Who knows if the 20-year-old Argentine will ever fully deliver on his promise, but the plays he made to set up Escobar’s goal was sensational. After dancing around a pair of defenders, he cut a shot pass between two defenders for the on-running Escobar to blast past Matt Turner.

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Man of the match: Barco

Goalscorers: Escobar (70′)

Quotable, fired up Martinez says Atlanta is ready to roar

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If this is how Josef Martinez speaks to reporters before a big game, we’d pay a pretty penny to get one of his motivational speeches when the microphones are off.

Saying that Atlanta United is desperate to defend their title and win at all costs, Martinez says, “Whoever doesn’t have that type of mentality can go home and start their vacation.”

[ PL PREVIEW: Man Utd v. Liverpool ]

The Athletic’s Felipe Cardenas has the story of Atlanta’s quest for more, as United prepares to open its playoff run on Saturday against seventh seed New England Revolution. The Five Stripes beat the Revs to close out the regular season, and should’ve immediately shifted their focus to the playoffs, says Martinez.

From The Athletic:

“If someone shows up with a flat mentality, I’ll kick their ass,” Martínez said with a stern look on his face. “You should’ve been prepared from the time our first game against New England ended. Whoever messes with my job, I’ll kick them. Nobody plays with my money or my family. I’m here to win. I’m here to demonstrate who we are. No one can relax. You can relax after Nov. 14.”

Pity Martinez and Michael Parkhurst offer similar, if less amped up, vibes.

Saturday’s MLS Cup Playoffs opener between the Revs and Atlanta should be a fun one, as Bruce Arena has retooled New England and is usually pretty good in big games.

The impossible annual task of choosing an MLS Best XI

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Forget about a functional XI when you’re putting together an MLS Best XI.

That’s true in most leagues, to be fair, but the offensive firepower in MLS puts up gaudy numbers as silky attackers are given a bit more free reign than their used to in previous leagues.

Consider that two players eclipsed the 30-goal mark in Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with the latter doing it in under 30 matches. Josef Martinez also came close in 29 matches.

[ MORE: MLS Cup Playoff Power Rankings ]

Those players are enough to form a trident for your Best XI, and they come from loaded units.

Then there’s midfielder Maxi Moralez of NYCFC with his 20 assists in 2434 minutes.

Vela had double digit goals and assists, an achievement met by Carles Gil (New England), Alejandero Pozuelo (Toronto), and Nani (Orlando City).

They all can’t make it.

So we’ll build from the back, and likely punish the fullbacks thanks to a remarkable group of attackers.

Here is who is getting my vote.

Goalkeeper

The backstop is always a tricky choice. Bill Hamid and Brad Guzan led the league in clean sheets with 14, but only the former will warrant consideration here. The Galaxy’s David Bingham led the league in saves and saves inside the box, while also stopping a pair of penalties.

Both join Portland’s Steve Clark, Vancouver’s Maxime Crepeau, and New England’s Matt Turner as advanced stat darlings.

For me it comes down to Hamid and Bingham. The former had far superior defenders, but I can’t get past DC United’s 38 goals allowed to the Galaxy’s 59. Maybe it’s the hockey fan in me thinking of it like the Jennings Award, but that’s my tiebreaker.

Defender

I’m gonna start with DC again here, and the Black-and-Red have two players deserving of a place: Frederic Brillant and Steve Birnbaum.

Here’s why I’m opting for the latter: On the SofaScore list of the Top 20 rated defenders in MLS, minimum 25 games, all but two were dribbled past 11 times or more: Orlando’s Lamine Sane and Birnbaum.

Birnbaum’s number? Two.

You read that right. In 3032 minutes this season, he was taken twice.

Other contenders include:

— Ike Opara, who had another remarkable season and didn’t miss a beat in switching from Sporting KC to Minnesota.

Bastian Schweinsteiger in Chicago dropped from the center of the park and was very strong.

— Miles Robinson of Atlanta was exceptional, especially given his age, while Ryan Hollingshead had the best advanced statistical season of any back on WhoScored. Jorge Moreira gets that nod on SofaScore. And spare a thought for Keegan Rosenberry, who intercepted 16 more passes than anyone else in MLS (82) but still can’t get a call from the USMNT.

Everybody else

We named the prime attackers in MLS at the top of this post. You’d like to add Nicolas Lodeiro and Diego Valeri.

Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye from LAFC have been difference makers behind Vela. In-beom Hwang was marvelous more often than not but on a terrible Vancouver team.

But there’s one name I believe qualifies as the least-heralded star in MLS.

Minnesota United’s Jan Gregus needs to be on this team. I don’t think he will because his goal and eight assists don’t pop off the page and the Slovakian national team doesn’t get as much love as center midfield partner and well-established bulldog Osvaldo Alonso.

Gregus was fifth in MLS in interceptions with 1.9 per match, 2.2 key passes, and crafts an awfully nice looking long pass. You could argue that he was the key to Minnesota’s fourth seed.

The Best XI

So here’s my team. We’d be destroyed out wide, but would probably score 10 goals a game so man would we entertain?

Bill Hamid (DC)

Robinson (ATL) — Birnbaum (DC) — Opare (MIN)

Gregus (MIN) — Atuesta (LAFC)

Lodeiro (SEA) — Moralez (NYCFC)

Vela (LAFC) — Ibrahimovic (LAG) — Martinez (ATL)

Bench: Bingham (LAG), Brillant (DC), Gil (NE), Pozuelo (TOR), Przyzbylko (PHI), Valeri (POR), Schweinsteiger (CHI)

2019 MLS Cup Playoffs Power Rankings: LAFC v. the field

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The 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs field is set. With the league going to a single-elimination format for every round of the postseason, the working theory is that the better team will prevail more frequently, thus adding a bit more weight to pre-playoff Power Rankings.

[ MORE: Christian Pulisic reacts to assist, being back in Chelsea team ]

With the higher seeds set to host the one-off matchups, don’t be surprised to see the below rankings read a lot like the final regular-season standings…

LAFC v. the field

1. Los Angeles FC

No matter how you wish to frame any discussion around this year’s playoffs, you have to first ask yourself, “Is it even worth talking about a team not named LAFC?” There’s a case to be made that, no, it’s not worth taking about any other team, but for the sake of this exercise we’ll say that there is. Very quickly, the case for LAFC:

  • Single-season MLS points record (72)
  • MVP-to-be Carlos Vela’s single-season goals record (34 – in a 34-game season; he played in 31) and 15 assists
  • Single-season goals scored record (85 – tied for most)
  • Fewest goals conceded (37)
  • +48 goal differential (2nd-best is +21, followed by +15 and +9)

Simply put, LAFC’s level of dominance rewrote the MLS history book from front to back. If they don’t win MLS Cup, it’ll mostly likely be because they found a (silly) way to beat themselves.


Strong upset contenders

2. Atlanta United
3. New York City FC
4. Seattle Sounders

Atlanta spent all season lying in the weeds, perhaps realizing the Supporters’ Shield was an unrealistic target given LAFC’s pace, before hitting their stride in the final two months of the regular season (eight wins from their final 12 games). What’s more frightening, Josef Martinez is on fire after bagging an astounding 22 goals during his 15-game goalscoring streak from mid-May to mid-September. Assuming he’s healthy (he missed games no. 32 and 33 before returning on Sunday), there’s no one in the Eastern Conference who can take over a game — or an entire postseason — like he can.

There’s not a more tactically flexible team in MLS than NYCFC, who’ll spent most of the season morphing from a three-man backline to a four-man unit and vice versa. After jostling with Philadelphia and Atlanta most of the summer, Domenec Torrent’s side finished nine and six points clear, respectively. With just one loss in their last 11 games, NYCFC, though devoid of the global superstars they’ve been known to recruit, might just be the most in-form team at the right time of year.

[ MORE: Carlos Vela sets single season MLS goalscoring record ]


The wild, wild cards

5. Philadelphia Union
6. LA Galaxy
7. Toronto FC
8. Real Salt Lake
9. Portland Timbers

No team in MLS history has ever entered the playoffs with a greater range of outcomes than the 2019 Galaxy. Given the fact they’re yet to lose to LAFC in two seasons of meetings, they might be the most likely (if undeserving) side to slay the giant. If they can get by Minnesota in the first round (a big if, away from home), they’ll get their chance in the next round. Oh, the things Zlatan Ibrahimovic would do to be at the center of that conflict. Sure, the Galaxy concede the most goals of any playoff team this year, but between Ibrahimovic and Cristian Pavon they might actually have the best 1-2 punch in all of MLS right now. In a knockout scenario, they only need one moment each to make their mark.

10 games unbeaten to finish the regular, but only four of them wins — are Toronto FC in great form or just a so-so run? There’s something to be said of securing results down the stretch, but drawing Orlando, Columbus and Chicago in that same period is hardly a ringing endorsement. Then there’s the quad injury to Jozy Altidore, suffered on the final day of the season. He’ll have an MRI and almost certainly skip USMNT camp in hopes of being ready in two weeks, but given his injury history it seems a long shot. Like most of the East’s non-Atlanta teams, TFC’s best path forward might just be to play for clean sheets and take very few risks, and hope.


Long odds worth a look

10. Minnesota United
11. D.C. United
12. New England Revolution

How did Minnesota, the West’s fourth-place team, end up down here? Their 3W-3D-3L record down the stretch of the regular season was hardly impressive and left more questions than answers. Osvaldo Alonso’s influence has been plain as day in recent weeks; same goes for Ike Opara, who’s been excellent and thoroughly deserving of Defender of the Year should he win it again. They’re great, but who else has shown they’re cut from the same cloth when the games get tense and tight? As stated above, the Galaxy could no-show or score six at Allianz Field, and neither outcome would have a whole lot to do with Minnesota’s performance on the night. Adrian Heath’s team got the worst draw of all the home sides in the first round, and their reward for a potential win is to go play the other team from LA. Woof.

[ MORE: Orlando City fire James O’Connor after 1.5 dreadful seasons ]


Long odds for a reason

13. FC Dallas
14. New York Red Bulls

One of these teams will reach the conference finals, because this is MLS at the end of the day.

Carlos Vela sets single season MLS goalscoring record

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Carlos Vela is MLS’ new single season goalscoring king.

Vela, with his trademark left-footed curling strike from distance, broke Josef Martinez’s record (31 goals) in the 28th minute against the Colorado Rapids.

The goal itself, catching Tim Howard and the Rapids by surprise, embodies the dominance the Mexican has showcased all season long. If Vela was going to break the record, one could sense it was going to be done in world-class fashion. Well, that’s exactly what happened.

And just two minutes later – fresh from breaking the record- Vela scored his second of the day in emphatic fashion, pushing the record to 33 goals with a bicycle-kick goal.

The 30-year-old, who recently lifted the Supporter’s Shield with LAFC, is putting together a historic season that may stand for years to come, scoring 34 goals and assisting 15 times in 31 games. In 2018, it took 34 games for Atlanta United’s Martinez to score 34 goals and record six assists.

There is no question that this is a season Vela will never forget. Will he take it above and beyond and lead LAFC to MLS Cup glory next, though?