ATLANTA — Franco Escobar scored another big goal, and Atlanta United advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals of the MLS Cup playoffs, surviving a nervy match to defeat the New England Revolution 1-0 Saturday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
In the 70th minute, Ezequiel Barco slipped an inch-perfect through ball into the New England penalty area, and Escobar hit a first-time shot over Matt Turner’s hands and inside the near post. It was the Argentine’s second goal this season and third playoff strike in an Atlanta shirt. Escobar scored in last season’s Eastern Conference final first leg and MLS Cup final.
“If you see Franco today, it was not a coincidence that he made the goal,” manager Frank de Boer said in the postgame press conference. “I think he was already tremendous in the first half, defensively, offensively. He’s so eager to get a good result on our side.”
Saturday’s winner came five minutes after de Boer changed Atlanta’s shape from a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3 with the substitutions of Héctor “Tito” Villalba and Florentin Pogba for Justin Meram and Emerson Hyndman, respectively. Escobar made an overlapping run into the area after moving from center back to right fullback.
“I wanted to bring some fresh blood in,” de Boer said. “I think also in that period we didn’t really have the control anymore, so that’s why I changed it with four at the back. If you want to bring Tito, he is not like Justin who does his defensive job — he does it, but he can not do it in that discipline because he’s a totally different player. That’s why I swapped to the 4-3-3, and I think as a result we got the control back and created chances.”
Barco’s assist came amid one of his best performances this season. He created three chances, the most of any Atlanta player, completed 83 percent of his passes and drew a game-high five fouls. Barco was the Five Stripes’ attacking outlet for 90 minutes, and he linked up well with Hyndman, Darlington Nagbe and Josef Martínez.
“I think we started really well to recognize they didn’t play one against one,” de Boer said. “The two center backs stayed on the same line, so Barco was a lot of times free between the lines. We could find him a couple of times and he was the most dangerous player at that period.”
The tight scoreline was a result of two factors: Atlanta and New England played two weeks ago, and in this game, with the victor advancing and the loser eliminated, de Boer was risk-averse with his tactics. Atlanta did not have MLS defender of the year nominee Miles Robinson due to a hamstring injury, and de Boer did not want his team to give up dangerous chances in transition. Robinson has snuffed out counter attacks all year, but 35-year-old captain Michael Parkhurst, who returned to the starting lineup, does not have the speed or strength required to play as a sweeper.
The Five Stripes, as they did during the 2018 postseason, came out in a 5-3-2, with wingbacks Gressel and Meram cautiously venturing forward only when Atlanta was methodically building its attack. Using the pragmatic approach, Gressel, who is known for his crossing ability, did not send his first ball into the area until 17 minutes had elapsed.
Oct 19, 2019; Atlanta , GA, USA; Atlanta United take to the field for their match against the New England Revolution at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
“We saw on video that [in the previous game against New England] sometimes Franco has to totally go out wide to [Cristian] Penilla and Jules couldn’t help him, and it really opened the gap in the middle for us,” de Boer told reporters. “We had a lot of problems with [Gustavo] Bou in that moment and when [Carles] Gil came inside. So we just said, ‘When the ball is on the other side, try to help your back three or your back four.’
“I think [Gressel] did well because Penilla the last game to this game was a huge difference. They had much more transition moments [in the last game] and now we had much more of the control. It’s only one game, so you don’t want to give that space directly away. I think Jules did a great job, also Justin.”
In what seemed to be the beginning of a possible storybook ending to his career, Parkhurst played well and executed multiple chance-saving tackles inside the penalty area. But he did not make it to the final whistle. In second-half stoppage time, the captain collided with Penilla and suffered a dislocated shoulder. De Boer estimated the center back will be out for “a couple of weeks.”
Atlanta finished with 14 shots, five on target. Those numbers for New England were 14 and six, respectively. The Five Stripes claimed 55 percent of the possession thanks to their superiority in winning individual duels. They won 66 of 109, 61 percent. Afterward, de Boer and his players said they expected a close game and that the result would be determined by individual efforts in the crucial moments, not beautiful, fluid play. The Five Stripes showed their mettle on this afternoon.
“Warriors,” Josef Martínez said when asked to describe his teammates’ mentality in the game. “It doesn’t matter if we play well or not. The important thing is to win.”