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Almirón, Gressel lead Atlanta United in 5-0 shutout of LAFC

Apr 7, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Julian Gressel (24) celebrates after scoring a goal with midfielder Darlington Nagbe (6) against Los Angeles FC in the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

How would LAFC’s first trip as a team to Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium gone differently if its defense stopped Julian Gressel and Miguel Almirón?

Walker Zimmerman, Laurent Ciman, Carlos Vela and company will have some time to think that over on their four-hour flight back to the west coast.

Atlanta United F.C. players didn’t have to ponder much, except where they would celebrate after hitting the showers. The Five Stripes captured their fourth straight win of the season after topping the expansion side 5-0 in front of an announced 45,207 fans on Saturday.

Gressel and Almirón had a hand in four of the first five goals scored. Atlanta United (3-1) was missing three starters coming into this game, but the pair of midfielders put the team on their backs.

The duo combined for the first score of the day, at the 17-minute mark. After getting a pass from Michael Parkhurst, Almirón whisked a through ball just in front of the goal.

It may have been intended for a sliding Josef Martínez, but the ball slipped by him and a gaggle of LAFC (2-2) defenders and was left unclaimed for Gressel to clean up. The LAFC defense was focused on Martínez – and rightly so as he had scored four goals this season coming into the match – but that left Gressel unmarked for an easy tap-in.

“Josef went near post and I just kind of saw the whole play developing and see the space in front of me, and I just figured if it comes through then I’ll be there to finish it,” Gressel said. “That’s my role as a wingback as well, to kind of get into the box late and see those runs and balls that might slip through.”

It took nearly another hour before Atlanta United found the back of the net again.

Kevin Kratz entered the game for Hector Villalba in the 59th minute. Just eight minutes later, he flipped the ball forward down the line to Gressel who sprinted up the right side of the field before crossing the ball into Martínez, who rose up and banged a header past LAFC keeper Tyler Miller for an easy goal.

Almirón connected on a pair of penalty kicks in the 88th and 92nd minutes to increase the cushion for the Five Stripes. LAFC defender João Moutinho received a red card for a handball in the box before Almirón’s second penalty kick.

The 24-year-old Paraguayan put each penalty kick in the same spot, beating Miller to the lower left corner of the net.

“I’m always happy as long as I’m helping the team,” Almirón said through a translator. “So, whether I’m scoring or a teammate is scoring it doesn’t matter, because we all celebrate together. But today, I’m happy for the goals.”

 

Romario Williams, who entered the game for Martinez in the 83rd minute, ripped his jersey off and twirled it around his head after he connected on a long shot with his left foot in stoppage time for the Five Stripes’ fifth and final goal of the game. For Williams, a 2015 SuperDraft pick, it was the first MLS goal of his career.

“It’s good for those guys to come in even though it’s difficult because they know the starters are going to get 75 to 80 minutes, so they have to be able to step in and do their job in short minutes,” Atlanta United coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said through a translator. “But I’m happy for him and it’s great that he was able to score. He’s a striker and that’s what strikers do.”

Perhaps more importantly than the five goals the team scored, Atlanta United’s defense pitched a shutout against one of the league’s top offenses and it was down three starting defenders. Mikey Ambrose, Chris McCann and Miles Robinson stepped in for Greg Garza, Leandro González Pírez and Franco Escobar.

“The game probably wasn’t a 5-0 game, but that’s how it turned out,” Gressel said. “We were scrappy on defense, we were fighting and that’s what its all about. We got to have heart back there and that’s what we had today.”

The game could have been played very differently if not for a VAR reversal just after the first minute.

Referee Ted Unkel pulled a red card from his pocket after Chris McCann slid into Benny Feilhaber, upending the LAFC midfielder and sending him into the air. The call seemed harsh and Atlanta players argued for a review. Unkel went to the VAR machine and came back with a reduced penalty, giving McCann a yellow card instead.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” said Mikey Ambrose, starting his first game of the season. “That was crazy.”

Just a week ago, Atlanta United won in Minnesota playing a man down for 52 minutes.

“I was pretty happy he reversed that call,” Gressel said. “I was like, ‘Here we go again,’ but thankfully he got it right and reversed. That’s what VAR is there for, right?”

In total, there were two video reviews in the game, along with five yellow cards and one red card issued.

“It’s tiring having the ref go and come back and review the calls. I think you have to review the main plays, but you can’t be reviewing every play of the game, otherwise the game is going to be longer than a basketball game,” Martino said through a translator. “One day we’re going to leave here at midnight.”

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