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Atlanta comes back to draw 10-man Seattle (video)

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A scrappy if not downright venomous affair between the lowly Seattle Sounders and high-flying Atlanta United ended in a 1-1 draw in Georgia on Sunday.

The Sounders went ahead through a Nicolas Lodeiro penalty kick, awarded via VAR a la this morning’s World Cup Final, but Atlanta leveled the score with a highlight which show every bit of the game story.

[ MORE: FIFA awards Golden Ball, Golden Glove ]

Just check Josef Martinez’s barking at Stefan Frei, who made an uncharacteristic error on the play, after his 19th goal of the season (Nice cross, Julian Gressel).

Martinez needs nine more goals to break the MLS single season record, and he has 13 games to score them.

Jordan McCrary was sent off for Seattle in the 63rd minute for a second yellow, but Seattle navigated the final half hour or so to scoop up an unlikely point.

Atlanta still sits first with its earned point but opens the door for New York City FC to reach the top of the table when it plays its match-in-hand, while Seattle is now 11 points back of the West’s final playoff spot.

Gressel ties it in Atlanta United’s 1-1 draw with Timbers

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ATLANTA (AP) Julian Gressel tied it in the 56th minute and Atlanta United held on for a 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers on Sunday.

A loose ball deflection off defender Larrys Mabiala bounced into Gressel’s path and he pounced on it with a right-footed volley. Atlanta (10-3-4) stayed atop the MLS standings and extended its unbeaten streak to five games.

Mabiala opened the scoring in the 32nd minute. Samuel Armenteros was the first to get a touch with a left-footed stab on Diego Valeri’s free kick. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan blocked it out, but Mabiala headed home the rebound and Portland took the early lead.

The Timbers (6-3-5) extended their unbeaten run to nine.

MLS: Atlanta buzzsaw rips LAFC; Chicago struggling; VAR (still) a mess

Photo credit: Atlanta United / @ATLUTD
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The sixth Saturday of the 2018 MLS season is in the books, and as always, we learned a few lessons from the afternoon and evening’s slate of games…

[ MORE: Other MLS Things — The Archive ]

Return of the ATL buzzsaw

Atlanta United were shut out — and blown out — on opening day just over a month ago, and the knee-jerk reactions were as predictable as they were flimsy: Are they really that good? Maybe they just had a lucky season last year? You can’t play like that in MLS and expect to win.

That narrative lasted, quite literally, all of 90 minutes before Tata Martino’s men dismantled D.C. United and Vancouver Whitecaps by a combined score of 7-2 in back-to-back weeks immediately thereafter and ground out a 1-0 win over Minnesota United while playing 52 minutes a man down last week. The Five Stripes’ resurgent run came to a head on Saturday, when they hammered Los Angeles FC, the expansion side upon which so much praise was heaped following wins in their first two games, to the tune of 5-0. Miguel Almiron scored two from the penalty spot, to go with single tallies from Josef Martinez, Julian Gressel and Romario Williams.

On Saturday, it was Gressel who stood head and shoulders above his peers, as the 24-year-old German import (via last year’s SuperDraft) bagged the game’s opening goal and delivered the seeing-eye cross to Martinez for the second which all but put the game to bed. At right, you’ll find the entirety of Gressel’s contributions for the afternoon, on both end of the field.

A few observations: 1) there’s not a single unsuccessful pass shorter than 10 or 15 yards in distance; 2) he’s extremely tidy when involved in short, combination play; 3) the location of his defensive actions, all of which are inside Atlanta’s defensive half of the field, placed alongside his passing map, paint a clear picture of just how active and involved he is over the course of 90 minutes.

Teammates like Martinez, Almiron, Ezequiel Barco, Hector Villalba and even Darlington Nagbe will get 95 percent of the headlines coming out of Atlanta this year — and rightly so, nothing should be taken away from them — but it’s someone like Gressel, who functions like the glue that hold all those entertaining, attacking parts together, while managing to contribute more than his fair share of danger, that has this buzzsaw ripping through opponents week in and week out.

[ MORE: Agent: Giuseppe Rossi could seek MLS move after two years ]

VAR is… struggling… still… still

Atlanta midfielder Chris McCann was sent off for a reckless tackle, which occurred 36 seconds into the game, that referee Ted Unkel deemed to have endangered the safety, in one way or another, of LAFC’s Benny Feilhaber. Unkel then consulted his handy-dandy video-assistant review system, and reversed the call, drastically changing the events and outcome of the ensuing 89 minutes.

If you watched the above clip, you’ll probably agree it’s something commonly referenced as an “orange-card” offense — just shy of a sending-off, but worse than your run-of-the-mill yellow card — which is just a clever way to say that it’s far from a “clear and obvious error” (yet again, that’s the language of MLS and the Professional Referee Organization), which is, of course, the threshold for a reviewable decision. No matter the initial call — red or yellow — it’s planted firmly in the gray area between yes and no, right and wrong.

If you watched that clip, you’ll find another extremely gray-area decision that initially went against Atlanta, only for Unkel to change his mind after a video review. I’m of the opinion it’s probably a foul — one that Almiron baits Walker Zimmerman into and undoubtedly embellishes — but it’s nowhere near definitive one way or another, which is the mandatory requirement to review the call on the field.

In the grand scheme of the game, it mattered very little, but if this is the willy-nilly process by which refs choose whether or not to review calls on the field, it’s going to rear its ugly head at a critical point in a game in the near future, and continue to do so until there’s a uniform process in place. The fact we’re left to wonder about the thought process of refs is, easily, the most frustrating part and does little to dispel the notion that MLS refs aren’t up to the standard of the league’s players and they too routinely impact the outcome of games.

[ MORE: CONCACAF issues punishments for TFC-America fracas in CCL ]

A win, but the same old problems for Chicago

Here’s the good news for Chicago Fire fans: after two losses and a draw to start the season, your team beat Columbus Crew SC and got its first win on Saturday.

Here’s the bad news: it was an identical offensive performance to those first three games, only with a Howler of the Year nominee from Crew SC goalkeeper Zack Steffen to bail out an attacking unit totally bereft of ideas and execution.

This is hardly a new development for Veljko Paunovic’s side, which lacked any semblance of a focal-point playmaker last season. Here’s some worse news, as something of an aside: it wasn’t addressed during the offseason, and the secondary transfer window might be too late in a deep Eastern Conference (the primary window is still open, but April and May are practical non-starters for transfer activity).

You can see, clear as day, where the gaping hole exists, as well as some pretty damning statistics. Paunovic’s plan ahead of Saturday’s win over Columbus was to pair a target man, Alan Gordon, with the defending Golden Boot Winner, Nemanja Nikolic, presumably to provide a bit of hold-up and knock-down play for Nikolic to swarm around and make runs off of. It… well, didn’t really work, as Nikolic touched the ball just once times inside Crew SC’s penalty area — his goal, which resulted from a wayward pass from the opposing goalkeeper.

Atlanta United’s Gressel wins MLS Rookie of the Year Award

AP Photo/Danny Karnik
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It was a formality once PST crowned him, but now MLS has joined our esteemed staff in naming Atlanta United’s Julian Gressel as its 2017 MLS Rookie of the Year.

The German-born Gressel is the seventh-straight MLS Rookie of the Year to come from the American collegiate system, joining Jordan Morris, Cyle Larin, Tesho Akindele, Dillow Powers, Austin Berry, and CJ Sapong.

[ MORE: PST talks with Gressel ]

Andy Najar is the last non-collegiate ROY, winning the award after heading from DC United’s Academy directly into the First Team.

The 23-year-old Gressel came to Atlanta via the SuperDraft after a college career at Providence. The right-sided man had five goals and nine assists as a rookie, adding another goal in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

Gressel received better than 53 percent of the vote, 37 points better than second-place finisher Abu Danladi of Minnesota United. Jack Elliott of Philadelphia was third, followed by San Jose’s Nick Lima.

Atlanta’s Julian Gressel making strong impression as ROTY candidate

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In the United States, U.S. Men’s National Team star Christian Pulisic continues to make waves overseas after forgoing college and the opportunity to play in Major League Soccer.

While his case is a bit different, one of Atlanta United’s young stars has taken a path less traveled, but is finding similar success in his first season in MLS.

Julian Gressel was drafted in the first round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, after boasting a strong college soccer career with Providence. The 23-year-old finished second all-time in school history in goals, while making a strong name for himself on the American soccer scene prior to being drafted in January.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan considering U.S. Soccer presidency run ]

Pro Soccer Talk had the chance to catch up with Gressel as the Atlanta rookie and his side prepare for their final match of the regular season before the MLS Cup Playoffs.

“It definitely helped because you get competitive games in and obviously also get national recognition from within the college system from playing in a big conference and going to a good school like Providence,” Gressel said in regards to playing in the Big East — one of the traditional power soccer conferences. “We made it really far in the NCAA tournament as well so it wasn’t just the Big East. The conference usually has three, four, sometimes five really good teams that make it to NCAAs, so it really helped me develop as a player.”

Although it’s become a common path for players not just in Germany, but throughout Europe and other prominent soccer regions, to pursue a professional career without much schooling beyond high school, Gressel opted to better himself both on and off the pitch.

“It was mostly school that was just a way for me to have a chance to do something after soccer,” Gressel said. “In Germany, I probably would’ve had the chance to play in the third or fourth division. Possibly 2.Bundesliga, but I only had a high school degree and I didn’t want to leave it at that.

The first-year MLSer finished with a degree in business management at Providence.

Gressel plied his trade with several smaller German sides prior to his arrival in the U.S., including FC Eintracht Bamberg of the Landesliga Bayern-Nordwest in Germany’s sixth-flight.

Like many other players that weren’t accustomed to following MLS across the pond, Gressel wasn’t certain what the league would bring for him, however, he didn’t buy into any misconceptions about it.

“I honestly didn’t follow MLS before coming here,” Gressel said . “As I came here my roommates and I started watching games basically every weekend and I also got to go to Gillette Stadium as a freshman to get my first live game with the Revolution.

“That experience gave me a bigger look at the league and then I figured out more about MLS as time has gone on and I’ve spent more time in the United States.”

“I always knew it was a difficult league and there were too many misconceptions overseas that the speed of play is slower in MLS and other things like that. I wanted to experience it [MLS] myself first before making an assessment.”

Twitter/@ATLUTD

With one match remaining in the regular season, Gressel has tallied an impressive five goal and nine assists, while starting 23 matches for Atlanta.

Gressel will surely be in the running for Rookie of the Year, along with Minnesota forward Abu Danladi, Jack Elliott of the Philadelphia Union and others. However, it has been Gressel’s ability to put together a complete season that really separates him from the pack.

The first-year attacking player has shown his technical ability throughout his rookie campaign (as seen in the video below), but Gressel believes that while he does exhibit a fair amount of composure, that it also helps playing alongside budding stars like Miguel Almiron and Atlanta’s top goalscorer, Josef Martinez

“It helps having the guys on my team that I get to play around as well,” Gressel continued. “Miguel [Almiron] and Josef [Martinez] are some of the guys that help elevate my game on a weekly basis. And you never want to be the one that lets your team down so that’s always another motivational factor. You don’t want to play that bad pass that breaks down an attack.”

In addition to being the beneficiary of playing with good teammates, Gressel has had the opportunity in his first season to play under one Gerardo “Tata” Martino — widely regarded as one of the top-tier managers around the world.

[ MORE: D.C. United’s Bill Hamid exploring European options ]

Most are aware of his time at Barcelona, but Martino’s expertise goes beyond that — including managing the Paraguayan and Argentine national teams.

To Gressel, it’s no surprise that Martino’s name has gained some traction as a potential boss for the USMNT following Bruce Arena’s decision to leave the Americans last week.

“I think he’s a great manager,” Gressel told PST. “He has great ideas tactically. He’s definitely the best I’ve ever seen or had the opportunity to work around. I haven’t been around so long, but tactically he has ideas that I never would’ve imagined and then they end up working. He’s one of the greatest coaches out there.

“It’s no secret that he’s had success with other national teams beyond just performing well at the club level. To have this rumor out there it’s pretty clear that people view him highly. I’m not sure how well he’d work because of the language barrier, which doesn’t help.

“It’s up to U.S. Soccer at the end of the day, but I hope he stays with me and the guys here for longer because I learn so much every single day.”