ATLANTA — Josef Martínez is back. After missing two games with knee and ankle injuries, Martínez returned to Atlanta United’s starting XI and scored the winner Sunday afternoon. Atlanta defeated the New England Revolution 3-1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on the final day of Major League Soccer’s regular season.
“We know what Josef brings — not just quality on the field, but as a leader, as a mental presence for all of us,” Julian Gressel told reporters after the game. “It was good. He had a good week of training. I’m sure he’s probably hurting right now a little, but he has a couple of weeks to recover. It was important for him to be there.”
Atlanta’s win, which secured the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference, ensured the playoffs will open with a repeat meeting against the Revs, who finished at No. 7.
Atlanta looked rejuvenated with Martínez on the pitch, and the win ends an up-and-down regular season on a high note. The Five Stripes started slowly in 2019, adjusting to a new manager in Frank de Boer and a new No. 10 in Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez. They caught fire in the month of August, winning seven of eight games across all competitions and two trophies: the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup. De Boer’s team faded in September, struggling to a 2-2-1 record as the quality in individual performances dipped.
Atlanta conceded almost immediately after taking the lead Sunday. Instead of folding, the Five Stripes raised their level down the stretch.
“It could have deflated us, but we hung in there and played a very good second half,” Michael Parkhurst said in the locker room. “We really closed up shop a little bit, didn’t give away as many opportunities. Created a bunch, scored a few goals there, took our chances really well, two fantastic goals in the second half.
“Definitely important just for the psyche of knowing that, hey, not everything always goes perfectly. If it doesn’t in the playoffs, you’ve got to bounce back really, really quick, because if you don’t, you’re out.”
Martínez’s goal — his 22nd in his past 17 league appearances — came four minutes into the second half. Julian Gressel played the Venezuela international through on goal with fantastic diagonal ball from his own half. Martínez dribbled down on Matt Turner and rifled his shot into the far corner.
He celebrated by running to the bench and kneeling before Parkhurst, Atlanta’s soon-to-retire captain. Parkhurst entered as a substitute in the 79th minute to his name being chanted throughout the Benz. The Five Stripes honored the center back with a postgame ceremony and victory lap.
“We feel good as a team,” Gressel told reporters after the game. “After that second half, I think we can go with our heads held high into the playoffs, a lot of confidence. We’ll see that team again, send them home with their heads down and with a loss here.”
Darlington Nagbe opened the scoring in the third minute, tapping in a nice square ball from Gressel. All eyes were on Josef Martínez for the pass, but Nagbe made a run into the box and took his opportunity well.
But the lead did not last long. Individual defensive errors have plagued the Five Stripes in recent weeks, and they cropped up again in the first half Sunday. Franco Escobar was responsible for New England’s early equalizer. Escobar misplayed a pass at midfield, allowing Cristian Penilla to run in on goal. Brad Guzan had stopped Penilla in a one-v-one matchup in the second minute, but Penilla calmly scored under Guzan’s glove in the eighth.
“Of course you want to try to avoid that. It’s better that they happened today than in two weeks,” manager Frank de Boer said. “But if you create more chances than the [opponent], hopefully we can score more in the end. That was very positive also.
“We know we have to try to avoid those mistakes. We’re going to analyze it. We’re going to talk to the boys about it. Hopefully they can learn from it.”
With Atlanta on the front foot after retaking the lead, Gressel sealed the three points in the 58th minute, smashing a first-time effort in off the post.
“It felt amazing,” Gressel said of the goal. “I was just like, ‘Oh, this is bouncing nicely, I just have to have a hit here.’ So I just drop-kicked. It came off really nice. At first I thought it was going to bounce out. It took forever to go from one post to the other side netting, but it was a good strike.”
Oct 6, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) on the field before a game against the New England Revolution at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Pity Martínez did not play Sunday. Instead, de Boer deployed Ezequiel Barco and Emerson Hyndman in support of Josef Martínez. Barco has been working his way back from a muscle injury and believes he is ready to play 90 minutes. He and Hyndman played well, creating a combined four chances. De Boer would not say whether Pity Martínez will be a starting XI player in the postseason. The Argentine’s inclusion may be determined by matchup.
“The only thing that concerns me is to win in the playoffs,” de Boer said. “Today, I chose this system with these players, and we have to evaluate this game, and afterwards everybody has to be on top. Everything can happen. Today I started with this XI and it can be changed in two weeks on the 19th.”
Not long after Atlanta stretched to a two-goal advantage, center back Florentin Pogba and winger Héctor “Tito” Villalba entered for Barco and Justin Meram. Atlanta shifted into a 4-3-3 and moved into a 4-4-2 when Parkhurst came on for Gressel. The team has not spoken much about in-game tactical changes, but de Boer said he wanted to give his players “a taste” of making those adjustments on the fly. Changing systems could be necessary throughout the playoffs, and de Boer may look to establish a new tactical foundation next season.
Unlike 2018, when Atlanta won its first MLS Cup, this year’s playoff format is single-game knockout. Should Atlanta get by New England, it will host either the Philadelphia Union or New York Red Bulls, two teams that have created problems for the Five Stripes in their short MLS existence. With the regular season finished, the margin for error is gone.
“We have to have a winning mentality,” Barco said. “We know it’s only one game and you’re out, so we have to come out and be ready from the first minute.”