FC Cincinnati hung with the defending MLS Cup champions for almost 60 minutes, but one player ultimately beat the Orange and Blue.
Atlanta United star Josef Martinez scored two goals in a six-minute span during the second half, and the Five Stripes beat FCC 2-0 on Wednesday in front of 24,774 fans at Nippert Stadium.
The Orange and Blue (6-22-3) overcame a slow start to give Atlanta a competitive game, but it wasn’t enough in the end. FCC had five of 14 shots blocked and two that were saved.
Here are three key points from the match:
1. A different kind of game
FCC parked the bus and defended with 10 men for much of the first half. Atlanta’s talented attack forced the back line to play deeper than anticipated, according to coach Ron Jans.
When the Orange and Blue did try to counter, there weren’t enough guys moving forward, and opportunities were quickly squashed.
As bad as it looked through the first 20 minutes or so — Cincinnati ended up with just 94 passes to Atlanta’s 335 in the first half and had just 22 percent possession time — the game eventually opened up more as Kekuta Manneh joined Emmanuel Ledesma in a high press, and the Orange and Blue even had some quality chances that would have given them the lead.
Maikel van der Werff nearly scored in the 31st minute on a header off Frankie Amaya’s corner kick, but Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan came up with a fantastic save and Eric Remedi cleared it off the goal line.
Cincinnati continued pressing to start the second half but struggled with finishing. Then, just as it looked like things had turned in FCC’s favor, Josef Martinez did what Josef Martinez does and scored a pair of goals within six minutes of each other to put United ahead 2-0 in the 65th minute.
He extended his scoring streak to 15 games and is now tied with Norwegian striker Tor Henning Hamre for second in all-time scoring streaks, behind Lionel Messi’s record of 21 straight games with a goal.
“Maybe we were too, in the moment of the game, overconfident because we got some corner kicks,” Jans said. “I think there was a lot of pushing going on in the box and that 10 minutes. I think we thought we were going to score a goal, and then the corner kick, the counter attack (to set up Atlanta’s first goal)."
Martinez’s first goal came in transition after Guzan punched the ball away and an Atlanta player found him on the run up the middle. He quickly dished off to Pity Martinez down the left flank for a give-and-go that gave Josef a wide-open lane to the goal.
His second goal started with a flick and a couple quick touches to work around the defenders in front of him before he blasted a left-footed curler from the top of the box. He is now at 28 goals for the season, two goals behind MLS Golden Boot leader Carlos Vela of LAFC and tied with LA Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
“He's always running in behind, so he's always testing the line, always wanting you to drop and then he gets the ball, and he only needs one look and he's almost always going to put it in the back of the net,” center back Nick Hagglund said.
2. Conceding and not finishing
With Atlanta’s two goals, FCC tied the MLS record set by Orlando City last year for most goals allowed in a season, sitting at 74 with three matches left. Meanwhile, the Orange and Blue average just under one goal a game scored.
Both areas have been issues all season, but even with the unfavorable record set Wednesday, the back line is at least showing more cohesion in recent games.
FCC moved away from the all-out high press Jans wants to play and became more compact Saturday in a 1-0 win at Montreal, something that continued Wednesday in order to try to contain Atlanta’s highly talented attackers and midfielders.
Jans doesn’t like that the team set a record for most goals allowed but acknowledged FCC just “needs time.” For now, the greater concern is figuring out how to finish opportunities.
“It's not that easy,” Jans said. “It's always about confidence, and when you score the first goal, it's easier to score the second. ... You can only change it by finishing and doing it a lot of times. We will see what the future is from the team and the players who missed the chances.”
3. Still some momentum
The Orange and Blue were hoping to build some momentum after Saturday’s victory at Montreal ended a nine-game winless streak, and although they left disappointed with the result, the mood of the team is much better than it was 10 days ago when FCC dropped a 5-1 loss to Toronto at home.
Atlanta was coming off a 3-1 loss at Columbus on Saturday but is currently sitting in third in the Eastern Conference with a playoff berth clinched, as the Five Stripes are vying for home-field advantage now as they seek to defend their MLS Cup championship.
“It's a better mood than it was two weeks ago against Toronto,” Hagglund said. “There were good things. This was Atlanta, top of the table. They've already won two trophies this year, so they are a good team. You can say a counter attack goal and another really well put together goal is what beat us on the day, which is I think, we had our chances as well. If we score the first goal, maybe they panic a little. Goals change games at the end of the day. We are just looking at the next game. We want to win for our fans. They deserve after a tough season at least one more hurrah from us.”
The Five Stripes already won U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup titles this year and were clearly the better team on the field Wednesday, but Jans still felt like his team had more quality chances.
“They have the better team, they play better football, they have better players, but, we played with so passion and I think they did the gameplan almost perfect in the second half except for one thing, and that's finishing,” Jans said. “I think we maybe had more and better chances than Atlanta did, but they had this guy called Josef Martinez and I think you can only applaud that second goal. It was quality. I'm happy with the performance but not the result.”
FCC hopes to bounce back Saturday in its third game in eight days and the second of three straight home games, as they also play at home Sept. 29 in the home finale against Orlando City.