Mar 11, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United fans participate in the supporters march before the match against the D.C. United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Atlanta United FC looked like a completely different team on the pitch Sunday compared to last week.
The Five Stripes were sharper, quicker and found the back of the net several times. And in front of a record-breaking announced crowd of 72,035, Atlanta United topped D.C. United 3-1 for its first win of the season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Atlanta pulled ahead in the 24th minute when Darlington Nagbe collected the ball in midfield and played it down the line to a sprinting Héctor Villalba. Villalba continued to make his way into the box, then passed the ball hard and low through Steve Birnbaum’s legs and past a sliding Frédéric Brillant. Josef Martínez was there to tap the ball past David Ousted for Atlanta’s first goal of the season.
“I’m in constant communication with Josef on the field,” Villalba said through a translator. “I’m always going to look for the pass before the shot. All it takes is some eye contact and we know what to do.”
Martínez scored 19 goals last season, which is the most ever by a Major League Soccer player on an expansion team. Nagbe and Villalba were credited with assists on the play.
Atlanta had several other solid chances at scoring but did’t find the back of the net again for nearly 50 minutes. In the 74th minute, Julian Gressel streaked down the right side of the field before laying the ball off to Miguel Almirón, who was perched at the top of the box. Almirón settled and launched a rocket off his right foot, which found the back of the net.
Moments later, in the 76th minute, Almirón received the ball off a short corner kick and lofted the ball into the box, where it connected with Villalba’s head for a goal.
“It’s stuff we work on during the week,” Villalba said of the goal through a translator. “If it wasn’t me, (Almirón) probably would have seen (Leandro González Pírez) right behind me. The plan is always to attack (the cross) to give the guys in the back an opportunity, but in this case I attacked it a little bit harder than usual and it went in.”
After last week’s abysmal performance against the Houston Dynamo, Gerardo “Tata” Martino changed the lineup a bit, going with a 3-5-2 lineup instead of his typical 4-2-3-1. It put Jeff Larentowicz at his natural position of CDM, Almirón as a central attacker, and had Greg Garza and Gressel on the wings.
The formation also included the return of Michael Parkhurst to the starting lineup.
“I think (Larentowicz) is more comfortable (at CDM), but that’s a question for him,” said Brad Guzan, who faced just one shot-on-goal in the game. “But I thought he was excellent tonight. I thought he, along with (Parkhurst), they limited the balls into (Darren) Mattocks. I thought the both of them were really good tonight.”
The changeup worked as Atlanta controlled possession 54 to 46 percent, was 83 percent accurate on its passes, and tallied 16 shots, six of which were on-target. The defense won 16 tackles.
Romario Williams, the 23-year-old Jamaican forward, made his Atlanta United debut in the 86th minute when he came on for Martínez. Andrew Carleton made his season debut when the 17-year-old homegrown entered the game during added time in the second half.
Carleton ran around the field for maybe a minute or so before the final whistle sounded. It was the first time he had seen action in a game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“Hey, 20 seconds is better than zero, so we got to start somewhere,” Carleton said with a chuckle. “I was happy to get in there. Coach has to do what coach has to do for the good of the team.”
For D.C. United, Luciano Acosta made his season debut in the 62nd minute when he subbed on for Zoltán Stieber. The 23-year-old Argentinian notched five goals and five assists last season but sat out the Black-and-Red’s first game due to a suspension.
D.C. United scored its lone goal of the game when Mattocks got ahold of a pinball in the box and shot it past Guzan in the 86th minute. Former Atlanta midfielder Yamil Asad played the ball into the box for D.C.
Villalba said that the Five Stripes’ 4-0 defeat in Houston last week was a wake-up call. Atlanta United hopes it carries the sharpness it had against D.C. United into next week, when it hosts the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday.
“There was a lot more focus and a lot more concentration throughout the week,” Villalba said through a translator. “(Houston) was eye-opening. There was a lot more concentration from the entire group to get it right. (Martino) gives us all the tools and resources to make sure we’re prepared and, in the end, it’s up to us to take that and use it.”