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Three takeaways from Atlanta United’s first MLS win of 2019

Ezequiel Barco
Apr 13, 2019; Foxborough, MA, USA; Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco (8) celebrates his goal against the New England Revolution during the first half at Gillette Stadium. (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

Atlanta United (1-2-2, 5 points) secured its first Major League Soccer win of the season Saturday night. The Five Stripes cruised past the New England Revolution, 2-0, on two Ezequiel Barco goals at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Here are three things learned from Atlanta’s best performance of 2019:

Atlanta finally looks like Atlanta

This was the performance Atlanta players, coaches and supporters had long desired. The Five Stripes created high-quality chances throughout the 90 minutes. Aside from a few shaky moments in the first half, Atlanta’s defending kept the New England attack at bay. Julian Gressel and Héctor “Tito” Villalba, who provided two assists, were excellent on the wings. Barco came on early for the injured Eric Remedi and took over the game.

Barco’s first goal was an easy tap-in after a great run to the by-line and cut-back pass by Villalba. His second was the kind of goal Barco was born to score. The 20-year-old Argentine picked up the ball at the top left corner of the penalty area, took one dribble to his right to create space and curled a shot past Revolution keeper Cody Cropper and inside the far post. It was reminiscent of the preseason goal Barco scored against Minnesota last year.

Manager Frank de Boer deserves credit for showing flexibility. De Boer has said he would love to have 70 percent possession every week, but he is willing to cede some possession if it results in better chances created. Atlanta finished the night with 47 percent of the ball. It outshot New England 19-7. Shots on target were 8-1 in the Five Stripes favor. Atlanta regularly allowed the Revolution to advance into their attacking third, and when the Revs turned the ball over, Atlanta countered with quick, direct passes. Some fans and pundits have said a de Boer team couldn’t play this way. Atlanta United did, for one night anyway.

Josef Martínez, false nine

It was a bit of a strange night for the reigning MLS MVP. When Martínez was through on goal, he was not at all clinical, scuffing the ball in front of an open net and hitting a shot directly at Cropper. He put just one of his five shots on target. However, the striker played a greater role in creating dangerous chances for his teammates, something rarely seen during his first two seasons in Atlanta.

Martínez was willing to drop a little deeper and play through balls to midfielders and wingers making runs behind the New England back line. This unlocked the Revolution defense on numerous occasions and led to the game’s opening goal. Asked after a draw against the Philadelphia Union, which featured a tepid offensive display, whether Martínez was comfortable with more participation in the buildup, de Boer explained Martínez could have success in that role if his teammates were willing to make penetrating runs. Saturday night’s result proved de Boer right.

It’s only one game

Before everyone anoints the defending MLS Cup champions as “back,” some context is required. The Revolution (1-5-1, 4 points) are not good, and their game plan was a gift for Atlanta. New England never pulled back on its high press, and the Five Strips never stopped punishing their opponent, easily moving the ball from defense to attack. Revs players committed rash challenges all evening. The first such instance came in the opening seconds and forced Remedi to depart with a head injury. They were at times so late and so far from the ball, their attempted tackles had to be classified as either malicious or incompetent. Atlanta remained calm and was not intimidated.

Before the game, de Boer said his team would need to play with “the hunger to win duels, to win games, and afterwards the quality can be decisive.” That’s exactly what happened. Atlanta was good Saturday night, but better teams with better tactics will provide much tougher tests.

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