ATLANTA — Atlanta United FC entered the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals with a one-goal advantage. Against New York City FC on Sunday, the Five Stripes could’ve parked the bus. They could’ve sat back and played conservatively. The could’ve played for a draw and advanced on the aggregate.
But that’s not the style of manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino. That’s not the mindset of this club. That’s not the attitude of this team.
Atlanta United attacked early and often. Two goals off set pieces in the first half gave the Five Stripes extra cushion in their lead and they cruised to a 3-1 win (4-1 on aggregate) against NYCFC to advance to the conference finals of the Major League Soccer Cup playoffs. An announced MLS postseason record crowd of 70,526 poured into Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the club’s first home playoff victory.
Atlanta gained an advantage in the 24th minute, when Darlington Nagbe fed a pass to Franco Escobar that sent the Argentine defender into NYCFC’s area. But Ismael Tajouri-Shradi challenged Escobar with a sloppy slide that brought the Atlanta defender down into the box. Referee Mark Geiger signaled for a penalty kick and Josef Martinez eagerly jogged up to the spot.
As he has done many times this season, Martinez began his penalty kick attempt in signature fashion, by hopping to his left, shuffling his feet, charging the ball, then hopping again before planting his left foot and delivering a strike with his right. NYCFC keeper Sean Johnson dove right and Martinez slotted home a hard, low roller in the left side of the net. It was the ninth successful penalty kick of the season for Martinez, the MLS Golden Boot winner.
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) November 11, 2018
Martinez added another goal for extra measure late in the second half. In the 83rd minute, the Venezuelan striker chested a through pass from Eric Remedi, settled the ball and then sent a rocket past Johnson for his 33rd goal of the season. Martinez was subbed off in the 86th minute for Hector “Tito” Villalba.
Atlanta capitalized on another NYCFC foul in the 42nd minute. Yangel Herrera clipped Miguel Almiron from behind as he was dribbling into the final third. Herrera was given a yellow card and the foul set up a free kick from about 24 yards out.
Almiron fired the ball over a wall of NYCFC defenders and it sailed into the top left corner of the net, out of reach for Johnson. It was the 13th goal of the season for the Paraguayan midfielder, who had never previously scored from a free kick in an Atlanta uniform.
After playing just 45 minutes in the first leg of this playoff, Almiron played 83 minutes in the second leg. He finished with 22 successful passes, three tackles and an interception before being subbed off for Ezequiel Barco.
NYCFC got one goal back just before halftime. A foul from Escobar set up a free kick from David Villa, who fired a shot into the box. After it grazed Atlanta’s wall of defenders, the ball found Maxime Chanot, who slipped behind the Five Stripes’ defense and finished an easy shot past Brad Guzan. It was just the second goal of the season for the 28-year-old French defender.
— New York City FC (@NYCFC) November 11, 2018
Guzan did make three key saves in the match. The first came in the 15th minute when he mishandled, but then fell on a shot from Herrera. Then in the 54th minute, the bald American went to his knees to grab a header from Maxi Moralez. In the 56th minute, after Julian Gressel failed to clear the ball, Guzan had to dive across the net to save a shot from Valentín Castellanos.
After giving up two goals in the first half, Johnson buckled down in the second half and interrupted a handful of Atlanta chances before they could become goals. Johnson, a 29-year-old native of Lilburn, Ga., finished the match with three saves and a cross claimed.
Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference final will be played Nov. 25. Atlanta will face the winner of the New York Red Bulls versus Columbus Crew SC semifinal, which began at 7:30 p.m. ET Sunday. If the Red Bulls win, Atlanta will host the first leg. If the Crew win, Atlanta will head to Columbus.
- Miles Robinson, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, made the first playoff start of his career, getting the nod at right centerback. The 21-year-old Syracuse product played in 10 regular season MLS games in 2018, starting three of them. He also saw a lot of playing time with the Five Stripes USL affiliate, ATL UTD 2, this season. Robinson replaced veteran Jeff Larentowicz in the starting lineup, who missed the game with a muscle injury.
- Six yellow cards were handed out in the match to NYCFC’s Chanot, Herrera, Moralez and Alexander Callens, and Atlanta’s Escobar and Robinson.
- With Sunday’s announced attendance, Atlanta United surpassed the one-million mark with 1,012,571 fans attending home matches at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this season. That total includes all home regular season matches, one U.S. Open Cup match and Sunday’s playoff.
- Atlanta’s Kevin Kratz subbed on in the 89th minute, replacing Darlington Nagbe.