ATLANTA — Atlanta United cruised to a 5-0 victory after Houston Dynamo star attacker Alberth Elis left the game with an early red card. Elis was sent off in the sixth minute at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Wednesday night, in front of an announced crowd of 42,557 fans.
Referee Chris Penso whistled Elis for a foul on Atlanta center back Leandro González-Pírez. Elis kicked the ball away and received a yellow card for unsporting behavior. The Honduras international objected to the caution and brushed up against Penso while arguing his case. Penso reached to his back pocket and showed Elis a straight red card for the contact.
“I heard that there was a bump,” Atlanta center back Michael Parkhurst said after the game. “I didn’t see anything, but you have to know who the referee is and be cautious.”
With injuries to Mikey Ambrose, George Bello and Brek Shea and a yellow-card suspension for Franco Escobar decimating Atlanta’s fullback depth, manager Frank de Boer was forced to change formations. De Boer abandoned his favored 4-2-3-1 for a 3-5-2 with Josef Martínez and Brandon Vazquez up top and Julian Gressel out on the right wing.
The Five Stripes (10-8-3, 33 points) appeared to be more comfortable in the formation. The team’s passing was quicker and more incisive, and there were more attacking runs off the ball.
Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez did not start for Atlanta. He subbed on for Vazquez in the 74th minute.
The action was end-to-end in the opening minutes, with both teams seeing good chances. Josef Martínez was through on goal thanks to a Houston turnover inside 20 seconds, but goalkeeper Tyler Deric closed down his shot. The Dynamo (8-9-3, 27 points) wasted an opportunity to take a fifth-minute lead. Marlon Hairston charged into the penalty area but was unable to connect on a low cross. The ball deflected off Darlington Nagbe toward goal, and instead of trickling over the line, it caromed off Hairston and out of play.
After Elis departed, the Five Stripes dominated. Atlanta kept the ball in Houston’s half and built dangerous attacks down the right flank. Gressel, returning to a position where he found much success in 2018, threatened with cross after cross.
Atlanta finally broke through in the 27th minute. Emerson Hyndman passed outside to Gressel, who hit a pinpoint square ball into the center of the penalty area. Nagbe rifled a first-time shot from the penalty spot, leaving Deric no chance at a save. Nagbe has appeared in 50 matches with the club since joining the Five Stripes prior to the start of the 2018 season, but this marked his first goal with Atlanta.
“A lot of guys had made some runs in the box to pull the defense back, and then Julian cut it back, and it was just on for a one-time finish,” Nagbe said.
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Two minutes later, Vazquez doubled the Five Stripes’ lead. Dion Pereira went to work down the left side, collecting a pass from Hyndman and taking one dribble to the end line. Pereira played a pass across the six-yard box. Dynamo center back Aljaž Struna got a slight deflection but could not keep the ball out of Vazquez’s path. The 20-year-old headed in from two yards away.
Josef Martínez added a third strike for Atlanta in the 60th minute. Gressel lifted a floating through ball into the area, and Martínez headed in from the edge of the six-yard box. The forward crashed into Deric and needed medical attention for a hurt elbow, but he stayed in the game.
Josef Martínez finished his brace in the 79th minute, fighting off a challenge from Kevin Garcia and juking the fullback and Deric to the turf before scoring into an open goal. Eric Remedi, who replaced Hyndman in the 64th minute, played Martínez into the box and picked up the assist.
The 2018 Most Valuable Player now has 11 goals in his past eight MLS games. He has scored a brace in four of five.
Gressel completed the scoring in the 88th minute. A Josef Martínez pass was poked away from Pity Martínez in the area, and the German-American wingback buried his first-time shot after a good back-post run.
Mauro Manotas and Romell Quioto, two-thirds of Houston’s dynamic attacking trio, started on the bench before entering after halftime.
Quioto had Houston’s best look at goal in the second 45 minutes. Atlanta center back Miles Robinson misplayed a ball around midfield, allowing Quioto to run free. Robinson caught the pacy forward in the penalty area and made a lunging tackle to put Quioto off his shot. Robinson did not get any of the ball, but Penso deemed he also did not get enough of the player to warrant a foul.
The Five Stripes enjoyed a man advantage for nearly the entire night. But even in the brief time before Elis’ sending off, they played well in the 3-5-2, a formation that was regularly deployed by former manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino.
“I think you can say, of course, the red card helps always,” de Boer told reporters in his postgame press conference. “Also I think that we started really well against 11. First minute, chance for Josef. They also had one good chance, but still I think we were really into it from the first second the game started.”
There were a few intriguing plot lines going into the game: Atlanta’s depleted roster, the team’s altered formation and Houston’s choice to rest Manotas and Quioto, leaving Elis by himself as a lone striker.
Six minutes after kickoff, Penso showed Elis the door, and that was the story.