Josef Martinez

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Three things we learned from Atlanta United-Toronto FC (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less): Level at one but holding the hosts at bay, Toronto FC looked content to drag the life out of the Eastern Conference Final. One of its attackers had other ideas, though, as Nick DeLeon dribbled into and then out of traffic to smash a shot past Brad Guzan from outside the box and earn the Reds their third MLS Cup Final berth in four years (all against Seattle Sounders).

The Five Stripes came out of the gates hot in both halves. Julian Gressel rolled a ball over the line in the fourth minute of the first half and Atlanta won a penalty with embellishment only to see Quentin Westberg deny Josef Martinez from the spot. Both Westberg and Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan were very decent in the first half, Nicolas Benezet’s equalizer a curling thing of beauty. A league with almost unrivaled home field advantage saw two celebrated home sides beaten by cagey former champions. MLS is a riot.

One more note: Here’s a nod to USMNT hero Michael Parkhurst, whose career ends one match short of another final.

“I have to say that today was resiliency,” said manager Greg Vanney. “It wasn’t beautiful soccer. These guys refused to give up, kept looking for their moment and got it. I don’t think there were too many statistical categories we won.”

[ MORE: Liverpool 5-5 Arsenal | GK hero reacts ]

Three things we learned

1. Bradley, TFC caught sleeping early: Toronto FC’s hopes of taking the Mercedes Benz Stadium crowd out of this one took a seismic shake when Michael Bradley somehow didn’t realize Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez was right behind him to blaze onto a terrific through ball from in-form Ezequiel Barco. Martinez held onto the ball as long as possible before sending a pass to Gressel for as easy a finish as you’ll see at this level. 1-0 in the fourth minute. Bradley then conceded a penalty to an embellishing but fouled Martinez, but French-American goalkeeper Quentin Westberg bailed him out with a fine save on Josef Martinez to keep the deficit at one. Buy him dinner, MB90.

2. TFC makes only attacking moments count: Nicolas Benezet quickly restored the deadlock with a terrific finish from the corner of the box. The ex-Guingamp midfielder ran onto a marvelous diagonal pass from center back Laurent Ciman. Benezet cut in freom the left and spun a curling effort toward the back post that ex-Aston Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan could not rescue before it rippled the netting for 1-1 in the 14th minute. You could argue that there wasn’t another threat from the Canadian side until DeLeon’s winner, which was a smashing shot to cap a smash and grab.

3. Westberg, Mavinga keep Reds in the match: Yes, of course, the penalty kick save was an outstanding moment for the former Troyes and Auxerre goalkeeper, but he would be needed many times over the course of the match including two moments in the first few moments of the second half. Decisive off his line and composed on it, the 33-year-old continues to validate Greg Vanney’s decision to put him in the lineup over MLS Cup winner Nick Bono. As for Chris Mavinga, the physical Congolese defender was a force. A few days after a Man of the Match performance in New York, Mavinga rebounded from an in-game injury to make two decisive interventions in the final five minutes.

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Man of the match: Westberg.

Goalscorers: Gonzalo Martinez (4′), Nicolas Benezet (14′), Nick DeLeon (78′)

Three things we learned from Atlanta-Philadelphia (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less): Atlanta United topped the Philadelphia Union by a final score of 1-0 inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday, booking their return trip to the Eastern Conference final which they won in 2018 en route to lifting MLS Cup. Atlanta took an early lead through a delightful chip by Julian Gressel, set up by Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez’s 360-vision through ball (more on that in a moment), they never relinquished it, and Josef Martinez put the game away late. While the Five Stripes were far from their overwhelming, all-consuming selves on the scoreboard and stat sheet (just 12 shots, five on target), they allowed Philadelphia even less on the other end of the field (11 shots, three on target). Atlanta will host Toronto FC, in a matchup of the last three East champions and the last two MLS Cup winners, in the East final next Wednesday, Oct. 30.

[ MORE: Frank Lampard praises Christian Pulisic ]

Three things we learned

  • A Pity-ful moment: It’s true that Pity’s first season in Atlanta has (far) fallen well short of what Miguel Almiron contributed in 2018, but that was always going to be an unfair measuring stick for the Argentine. After spending all regular season (and the first round of the playoffs) in and out of the lineup, Pity got the call on Thursday and delivered the goods. This is an assist you’re not supposed to see, but Pity saw it all the way.

  • Don’t give Josef a glimpse. It’s too late: Good luck finding a finish better than this one from Josef. It couldn’t have been placed any better, whether higher or to the left, and there’s not a thing any goalkeeper in the world could have done to stop it. He had a few chances to find the back of the net in this one, and while he was largely wasteful on the night, he put the most difficult of all those chances away and showed once again that he can singlehandedly take over and change the course of a game, or an entire playoffs.

  • Atlanta with a sense of control: Coming into the season, the biggest question following Frank De Boer‘s appointment as Tata Martino’s replacement revolved around the clash of playing styles of the respective sides. Early on, it was a total disaster as De Boer tried to force square pegs into round holes. Eventually, though, he relented a fair bit of control and met his players somewhere in the middle (though, still closer to their end of the spectrum). In a way, this year’s edition of ATLUTD might actually be better suited to navigate the playoffs en route to lifting MLS Cup (if not for LAFC standing in their way). There was a large measure of control and maturity to the way they finished off this game.

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Man of the match: Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez

Goalscorers: Gressel (10′), Martinez (80′)

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)