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Atlanta United, Philadelphia Union battle to 1-1 draw

ATLANTA — The diminutive  Ezequiel Barco scored on a header for the first time in his career, but it was not enough to secure three points at home for Atlanta United. Barco’s 70th-minute goal canceled out a 47th-minute strike from Philadelphia Union debutante Brenden Aaronson in a 1-1 draw Sunday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The 2018 MLS Cup champions now have two points from their first three league games of the season. Philadelphia (0-2-1) secured a point for the first time this year.

The story of the evening was once again a lack of chances created by Atlanta’s wealth of attacking talent. The Five Stripes  finished with 69 percent of the possession, but they managed just two shots on target. Manager Frank de Boer deployed his side in a 3-4-3 formation with a diamond midfield. After a toothless half-hour, Atlanta (0-1-2) moved to a 4-4-2 with captain Michael Parkhurst, normally a center back, launching forward in the left fullback position.

The change had a positive effect for Atlanta. Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez found space down the left flank and sent a good cross toward Josef Martínez, whose sliding attempt caromed off the crossbar.  

“In the beginning, I think we were finding some problems to find our free man, because Philly was very [well] organized,” de Boer said in his postgame press conference. “The first 30 minutes wasn’t the type of play that we wanted to see.”

One minute and four seconds following the restart, Aaronson put Philadelphia ahead.  The 18-year-old Union academy product was allowed to dribble unencumbered into the middle of the Five Stripes’ defensive third. Leandro González-Pírez attempted to close down the midfielder, but Aaronson’s shot from 20 yards took a deflection through the center back’s legs and left goalkeeper Brad Guzan frozen. Aaronson’s first appearance for Philadelphia’s senior team came in place of Mexico international Marco Fabián, who was out on a red-card suspension.

Whatever energy was being generated by the announced crowd of 42,651, which was still returning from the stadium’s myriad concessions and had not yet resumed its full-throated support, quickly dissipated. 

Hector “Tito” Villalba made his second start of the MLS season and was energetic. Villalba regularly attempted to stretch Philadelphia with his pace down the wing, and he beat several defenders in one-on-one scenarios. De Boer called Villalba’s approach to the attack “unpredictable” and credited the Paraguay international’s discipline to hold his position in midfield.

However, it was Villalba’s departure for Barco in the 70th minute that turned Atlanta’s fortunes. Barco immediately stamped his influence on the game with his defensive pressure and impressive dribbling. Three minutes after coming on, he played a pass to Darlington Nagbe at the top of the 18-yard box.

Atlanta worked the ball around until it found Julian Gressel near the byline to the right of goal. Gressel chipped a cross into the center of the box and Barco, perhaps unmarked because no one in a Philadelphia shirt figured the 5-foot-6 Argentine would be able to jump high enough, nodded his free header past Union goalkeeper Andre Blake.

Barco rushed to retrieve the ball and return it to the center circle, and Atlanta pushed for a winner. In the final few minutes, Philadelphia looked more likely to take all three points as the Five Stripes ran out of gas. 

Mar 17, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United players walk on to the field prior to the game against the Philadelphia Union at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

After a a brutal season-opening schedule that featured seven games in three countries across 23 days, Atlanta gets some rest with the upcoming international break. De Boer referenced fatigue as a reason for the lack of quality chances and encouraged the team’s fans to applaud his players for fighting back to earn a draw in difficult circumstances. 

It was a tough night for Pity Martínez, who still hasn’t fully meshed with his new team after making a big-money move from River Plate in January. El Pity’s passes and runs rarely went in the right direction, and de Boer acknowledged he has not yet adapted to playing in Atlanta.

On the other hand, Miles Robinson continued his excellent from. The young American center back won every duel that came his way, earning several ovations from the crowd and a few back slaps from Guzan. He was named man of the match and drew a crowd of television cameras and microphones in the locker room.  

The Five Stripes have 13 days off until their next game at the Columbus Crew on March 30, though Josef Martínez, Pity Martínez and Villalba all will report for national-team duty. With time to work on an attacking identity, Parkhurst is eager for Atlanta to turn its domination of the ball into domination on the scoreboard.

“I don’t think the idea is to just out-possess a team,” he said. “That’s not what we’re going into a game thinking. We’re thinking we want to score goals and create chances and be offensive and pin teams in their own half. It’s not happening right now for us.”

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