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Atlanta United switches off, wastes Josef Martínez magic vs. New York Red Bulls

Martínez’s would-be stoppage-time winner was nullified by Bradley Wright-Phillips.

Jul 7, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United forward Justin Meram (14) reacts after an almost goal by forward Josef Martinez (not pictured) during the second half against the New York Red Bulls at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)
Jul 7, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United forward Justin Meram (14) reacts after an almost goal by forward Josef Martinez (not pictured) during the second half against the New York Red Bulls at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)

ATLANTA — Josef Martínez scored two more goals Sunday, pulling Atlanta United level with the New York Red Bulls in the 79th minute and netting an apparent winner in second half-stoppage time. The comeback and the heroics should have made for a signature Josef moment. He was playing his first game with Atlanta since returning from Copa America duty with Venezuela.

Instead, the Five Stripes immediately switched off defensively. Bradley Wright-Phillips, one of Major League Soccer’s preeminent goal scorers, was allowed to run into Atlanta’s penalty area unmarked. No one dealt with a hopeful ball from Cristian Cásseres Jr., and Wright-Phillips scored from eight yards to split the points.  

“[Martínez] is a winner, and so I feel really sorry for him,” de Boer said after Sunday’s 3-3 draw. “You come back, and you’re 3-2 up, and then, of course, you have the feeling that he’s the man — still he is the man, but only with one point.”

Atlanta’s disappointing draw came four days after a 5-1 bludgeoning at the Chicago Fire. In that game, Frank de Boer’s team was not ready for kickoff, and it was down three goals and one man within 13 minutes. Atlanta United has a mentality problem, and it is not clear what is needed to correct the issue.

“You have to go through that pain,” de Boer said. “It’s hard, and we have to improve in that, and maybe it’s mentality to really understand, hey, what does it mean to get those points. Maybe mentally, you have to improve there. … This is maybe sometimes the problem of our team, but I am convinced that we are going to do much better the next time.”

After allowing 11 goals in its first 15 Major League Soccer games of 2019, Atlanta has conceded 15 in its past six across all competitions: four MLS games and two U.S. Open Cup contests.  

De Boer, an iconic Dutch centerback in his playing days, does not lay the blame for Atlanta’s defensive woes on his back line. And he does not see a lack of chemistry from recent forced lineup changes as a valid excuse. The manager believes in the Cruyff-ian notion that his team’s attackers should be its first defenders.

“I always say, defending starts up front, guys,” de Boer told reporters. “You cannot blame the defenders — it’s the whole team. … It’s all a team effort, and I think we have to understand that. 

Brad Guzan said after the debacle in Chicago, Atlanta emphasized the importance of a good start against New York. Justin Meram’s 10th minute goal was the reward for that focus, but Guzan could not come up with an explanation for allowing the last-ditch equalizer Sunday.

“I don’t know, I don’t know what it is,” the goalkeeper said. “I think if you’re able to put your finger on it, it probably doesn’t happen as often as it currently is.

“As a team we need to certainly be better defensively, because to a certain extent, it’s got a feeling of the beginning of the season, when you’re conceding chance after chance after chance. You’re not going to win many games playing like that,  so we need to make sure we get back to being strong defensively, and that allows players like Josef Martínez to go and win us the game.”

Pity Martínez ‘didn’t do enough’

Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez has started on the right side of Five Stripes attack in recent weeks. On Sunday, de Boer deployed the Argentine centrally. The manager reasoned New York’s high press would lead to many long balls from Guzan, and El Pity would be relied upon to win duels and distribute to Atlanta’s runners in the attacking half.

Pity Martínez was Atlanta’s first tactical substitute in the 63rd minute, exiting for Brandon Vazquez.

“[W]e have to win duels, and in my point of view, he didn’t do enough to avoid that somebody can give an easy long ball,” de Boer said, explaining the substitution. “You saw Brandon came in and it was a different story.”

Pity Martínez did pick up an assist on Meram’s goal, collecting a long pass and dribbling into the attacking half before distributing to the winger. That is exactly what de Boer wanted out of his No. 10 against New York. But as he has on a routine basis this year, Pity Martínez faded and became a liability. The 2018 South American Footballer of the Year is match fit, so his struggles may be a question of effort.

“I want not 10 or nine or eight men [who work hard],” de Boer said. “Everybody has to work, especially in these kind of games, very difficult games.”

De Boer added that his 74th-minute substitution of Jeff Larentowicz for Eric Remedi was another move to win more duels. Atlanta fans criticized the change on social media in real time, seeing a defensive midfielder entering while the team was in need of a goal. But de Boer read the game correctly, and the Five Stripes improved with Vazquez and Larentowicz on the field.   

Hamstring injury for Pogba; post-whistle red for Larentowicz

Larentowicz escaped punishment for an extracurricular shove on Marc Rzatkowksi. He did not get away with stamping on the foot of Cásseres with his last action of the game. Referee Kevin Stott reviewed the play after the final whistle and issued Larentowicz a straight red card for violent conduct. Larentowicz will miss Atlanta’s game at the Seattle Sounders this Sunday.

“Not so smart,” de Boer said of the incident. “I think he got a push, and he reacted on that, probably.”

Florentin Pogba started at left centerback, filling in for Leandro González-Pírez, who was on a red card suspension of his own. Pogba went down with a hamstring injury in the 29th minute and asked to be subbed off.

He was playing his third game in eight days and might not have been ready for such a workload.

“In eight days, three games is too much when he didn’t play much [earlier in the season],” de Boer said.

“Unfortunate for him, because I think he was doing really well, very positive guy in the dressing room, helpful for the youngsters. Now he can help the youngsters, but it’s a pity for him, because he didn’t deserve it, because he did a really good job.”

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