No other team is averaging more than two goals per game (2.05 to be precise) and drawing more than 46,000 fans per game (46,482, which if maintained will be a league record). No other team has three players with at least eight goals. No other team ranks as high in both first-half goals (19, tied for third) and second-half goals (20, second).
Its array of young, exciting attackers is certainly sexy, yet AUFC is a more complete team than many realize. Chilean international Carlos Carmona and MLS veteran Jeff Larentowicz anchor the midfield. The back line features U.S. internationals Greg Garza and Michael Parkhurst, and Argentine centerback Leandro Gonzales Pirez. It ranks ninth among the 22 teams in goals allowed, 27, and that number figures to drop when Brad Guzan finishes his Gold Cup duty and steps into the nets.
Alec Kann has done a solid job yet won’t even get the chance to back up Guzan for a while; Kann is sidelined by a quad injury suffered in a match against Columbus July 1 and didn’t play in a 4-2 defeat of San Jose three days later. Veteran backup Kyle Reynish took over in goal and Atlanta needed a couple of saves from him and five blocked shots from field players as it eventually broke through against 10 men to win going away.
Head coach Gerard “Tata” Martino expressed some concern that it took Atlanta so long to reply after Tommy Thompson blasted home his first MLS goal in the second minute. A second caution dismissed Kofi Sarkodie in the 32nd minute and not until the 55th minute did AUFC equalize. Ten minutes later, it grabbed the lead with a Josef Martinez goal, then conceded a minute later when Reynish misplayed a cross and Chris Wondolowski volleyed into the roof of the net from a tight angle.
“The two goals that we conceded bother me because the first goal I think was off a turnover playing out of the back and the second was a defensive error right after going up 2-1 on the score,” said Martino.
Garza, who is on loan from Mexican club Tijuana, said the victory is an important step in the team’s maturing process. The Quakes surprised Atlanta by pressing early and continued to apply pressure until they tired and gave up late goals to Anton Walkes and Martinez.
“To be honest, I think it is something I think we need to learn as a team,” said Garza, whose cross from the left wing set up Martinez for a fierce header and a brief 2-1 lead. “We got scored on in the second or third minute, but it is a 90-minute game. We have a tendency when we get scored on, we put our heads down and lose concentration and it is like we have to score the next minute or it all goes to hell. I think we need to grow as a team, and I know that comes from experience.”
Given all the possible candidates to net a winning goal -- Martinez, Hector Villalba, and Miguel Almiron are the trio with at least eight goals apiece -- an unlikely source did the business against San Jose. Defender Anton Walkes, a loanee from Tottenham Hotspur who broke into the starting lineup just last month, reacted quickest to a Julian Gressel cross and fought past two Quakes defenders to head his first senior goal.
“We know we have quality, so it’s all about sticking to it throughout the whole game,” said Walkes. “As you can see, once we get going we can be
unstoppable, so it’s all about keeping up that positive momentum.”
The assist was the sixth of the season for Gressel, who is among the frontrunners for Rookie of the Year honors. He’s third on the team in assists behind Yamil Asad (9) and Almiron (8). It’s a very young group: Almiron and Gressel are 23, Asad is 22, as is Villalba. Martinez, whose double upped his tally to nine goals in just 595 minutes of play, is 24.
Walkes? He’s a 20-year-old centerback -- at least in England -- but for AUFC has played right back. In addition to his goal he provided three key passes, took a caution for stopping Thompson with a shirt grab, and in stoppage time snuffed out San Jose’s final hope by blocking a shot from close range.
His goal came from a short corner kick, just the second time Atlanta United has scored from a set play (not counting penalty kicks, of which it has only one.) It leads MLS in goals scored from open play (33).
“We always practice set pieces, sometimes you score and sometimes you don’t,” said Martino. “It’s the same as substitutions, sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad. Today we had the luck to have scored on a set piece and furthermore it was a very important goal because it was the third and it’s also good that Anton scored because he’s been putting in a great effort playing in what’s not his natural position, so it’s a good reward for him.”
So far the rewards have been ample for the team and its fans. It plays its first two games against regional rival Orlando City after the Gold Cup break, including the last game at Bobby Dodd Stadium prior to starting a six-game home stand in brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium starting Sept. 10 against FC Dallas. There will be a switch from grass to artificial turf, and last week the team confirmed prices for concessions will be "the cheapest in professional sports." The league record for average attendance (44,247) set by Seattle in 2015 is certainly within reach.
The defeat of San Jose ended a crowded 32-day phase of seven league games and two Open Cup matches. AUFC won four of those seven MLS contests to settle into fourth place with a record of 9-7-3 (30 points). It is also riding a five-game winning streak at Bobby Dodd Stadium, where it is 6-2-0.
“It has been a busy stretch for us, and I think we came out of it in a good position,” said Parkhurst, one of the oldest players on the roster at 33. “With this stretch of games we just had, we were able to pick up a lot of points at home which are so valuable. We’re above the red line, we are where we want to be and now after our break we can set our sights on pushing up higher.”