For the TV viewers who thought Atlanta United spent much of the day toying with the seemingly overmatched Colorado Rapids, you weren't alone.
From the opening bell on Saturday, United showed more creativity, versatility and intensity–the happy result of returning from an extended break and posting an easy 3-0 victory out West.
For the season, Atlanta has nine wins on the road–easily the highest tally of any Major League Soccer club.
Here's a quick recap of Five Stripes' eighth shutout win of the season, played before a sparse crowd in Colorado:
**On the opening goal (10th minute), the Colorado defense offered little resistance for a fast-break opportunity that included Josef Martinez casually dribbling through a group, before firing a long pass to Julian Gressel up the right side.
From there, Gressel booted an effective cross pass, hitting Miguel Almiron in stride.
After a shot fake, essentially flooring the Rapids goalkeeper, Almiron deposited one of the easiest goals of the season.
In a flash, Atlanta led 1-0.
**At the 18th minute, the Rapids defenders were again powerless to stop a United charge led by Martinez, who during a 2-on-1 opportunity, waited patiently for Almiron to flank hard from the left.
Upon receiving the ball, Almiron subsequently had little difficulty collecting his second goal of the match.
Which brings us to this: Colorado (24 seasonal points) may be on the short list of the MLS's worst teams, but the Rapids' (nonchalant?) defensive intensity in the opening minutes was a real eye-opener.
Whatever Atlanta wanted to pull off in open space ... the club essentially took advantage of the situation.
Put it all together, and it's fair to wonder if the Western Conference champion–whomever it might be during the fall months–would be a worthy adversary against the Eastern Conference champ during the MLS Cup finals?
Where's the defensive determination that has become a staple of the East?
**Hector Villalba's goal at the 38th minute had a similarly routine feel.
After United had played keep-away around midfield, Almiron launched a downfield pass to Gressel, who juked right with the initial intention of a shot attempt ... before executing an unobstructed cross pass to Villalba, who netted the easy goal on a slide-kick opportunity.
The cumulative damage had been done before the 40th minute; and yet, Atlanta could have inflicted more pain in the second half, if it wasn't more concerned with moving things along and avoiding injuries.
The upside to that? If the Red Bulls fall short of victory, they would be in the double-whammy position of trailing Atlanta in the standings ... and having one more game played than United.