ATLANTA — For five Atlanta United F.C. players and their coach, the 2018 MLS All-Star Game on Wednesday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium was anything but an exhibition.
Gerardo “Tata” Martino coached to win and the Five Stripes played with the same ferocity that they would use in a league match.
Star striker Josef Martinez notched an equalizing goal and took home MVP honors. The other Atlanta players shined too, despite the All-Stars falling in penalty kicks (5-3) to Juventus.
“It was a great game,” 19-year-old midfielder Ezequiel Barco said through a translator. “Juventus is a very difficult rival. They have great players, but we tried to play our game. We did our best and it was a great game.”
Barco played the least out of the five Atlanta United players, seeing the pitch for 29 minutes, but he still made an impact. He was accurate on 83 percent of his 12 passes, won a foul and tallied a shot on goal, which came after a brilliant run into the final third from teammate Miguel Almiron.
What a run by Miguel Almirón! He picked up the ball in his own half and surged past multiple #Juventus players, before finding Giovinco for the cross to Barco, resulting in a good save by Szczęsny.
— Jason Foster (@JogaBonito_USA) August 2, 2018
The young Argentine also had a front row seat to Martinez’s equalizing goal in the 26th minute. He was still watching from the bench as Martinez went to work in the penalty area.
After heading an initial cross into the box, Martinez drifted towards the far post. After the ball bounced around some, it was played in front of the net by Ignacio Piatti. Martinez jumped toward two defenders and headed the ball into the goal as he fell toward the turf.
Despite being 5-foot-7, Martinez leads all of MLS with headed goals since he entered the league in March 2017. He leads the MLS Golden Boot race this season by a wide margin, having tallied 24 goals in 23 league matches so far.
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) August 2, 2018
“Every time Josef scores it makes me happy,” Martino said. “Hopefully he can score for us this weekend as well.”
Said Barco: “I was really happy for him. He’s a great teammate, a great person and a great player. We all enjoyed it. We hope his goals keep coming.”
Almiron and Brad Guzan played the longest for Atlanta on Wednesday, each playing for the entirety of the first half.
Guzan allowed a strike from Andrea Favilli to find the back of the net in the 21st minute, but also made three saves. Almiron danced and passed around defenders, completing 90 percent of his 20 passes and also winning a foul. Had Barco’s shot-on-goal found the back of the net, he would have tallied an assist too.
“Every time I step on the field I try to give my best performance,” Almiron said. “Today was another one of those times. I think I took the game really seriously against a really good team. It was a very intense game… I think we all took it seriously. It was an important game for us. We all wanted to win it and I think each one of us showed that in the field.”
Atlanta’s captain, Michael Parkhurst, was the last of the Five Stripes to appear on the pitch, playing 35 minutes in the second half and helping lead a defensive unit that didn’t allow Juventus to score in the final 45 minutes of regulation.
Martinez pressed and played with fury in the penalty box, Almiron showed off his two-way ability and flair for passing, Guzan attacked each Juventus shot, Barco put his dribbling and shooting skills to work, and Parkhurst stood tall against some of the best attackers from Serie A.
It was the sixth MLS All-Star Game that the 34-year-old defender has played in, but the first time it came in front of a record crowd. 72,317 fans attended the match against Juventus, besting a record set in 2010 by Houston’s All-Star Game.
But for the Five Stripes, big crowds aren’t anything new.
“I think that’s normal now here in Atlanta, regarding the records with the number of people we get,” Almiron said. “We all appreciate the support in Atlanta.”
Still, Martino was appreciative of the crowd, the atmosphere and the effort that the team put forth.
“Everything I have to say (about the All-Star Game) is positive,” Martino said. “The league and Atlanta put on this game and this show together. They were able to show off our beautiful stadium, the amazing crowd in Atlanta and I think it was a positive sign for Atlanta as a city and also the league.”