ATLANTA — Emerson Hyndman salvaged Atlanta United’s hopes of finishing atop Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference. The Five Stripes pulled out a 3-1 win against the 10-man San Jose Earthquakes Saturday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Hyndman’s winner came in the 90th minute, 11 minutes after star center forward Josef Martínez subbed off with an injury. Darlington Nagbe carried possession into Atlanta’s attacking third with a driving run and drew center back Florian Jungwirth to the ball. Nagbe laid a pass off for Hyndman in the penalty area, and Hyndman blasted a shot into the far top corner. It was his third goal in an Atlanta shirt and his first in MLS play.
“[The goal] was a long time coming for me,” the Bournemouth loanee said after the game. “I missed a few chances early on. ‘D’ made a great run and slipped me through, and thankfully I finished that one.”
Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez sealed the result in stoppage time. With San Jose flooding forward in search of an equalizer, El Pity collected a Brandon Vazquez pass alone in the penalty area. He finished calmly with a shot that kissed off the inside of the post.
“In this [time of the season], you need three points,” Atlanta manager Frank de Boer said in his postgame press conference. “They fought for it and they were patient. At the end, we got the result that we wanted. It was not easy, but that doesn’t [matter].”
Josef Martínez exited the win in the 79th minute after rolling his right knee and ankle. He initially tried to play on after a medical assessment, but de Boer called for a substitution and the Venezuela international was stretchered off. San Jose double-marked Josef Martínez all afternoon, forcing him to drift wide and deep in an attempt to find the ball and clear space in the middle. His MLS-record goal-scoring streak ended at 15 games.
With Atlanta’s goleador out of the game, one question went through his teammates’ minds.
“Who’s going to score?” Nagbe said in the locker room. “He single-handedly does most of our scoring. But it’s not just that. He frees up the game for us with the runs that he makes behind the lines. Having him off the field, there was a little bit more attention on everyone. Hopefully, he’s OK.”
Sep 21, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) and Atlanta United players stand with their Wells Fargo Escorts during the national anthem before their match against the San Jose Earthquakes at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
De Boer did not know the severity of the injury immediately after the game, but if Josef Martínez is sidelined for any length of time, it will be a massive obstacle for Atlanta to overcome. Hector “Tito” Villalba filled in at center forward for an injured Josef Martínez in 2017. He could be asked to do the job again.
“We’re going to wait and see how he’s doing first. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Villalba said. “I’m always ready to play whenever the coach needs me. So if he asks me to play goalkeeper, then I’m ready.”
The score was tied at halftime, but the Five Stripes should have been ahead through Hyndman. Jungwirth scuffed a clearance in first-half stoppage time, and Hyndman’s first-time effort from six yards was well off target.
“It’s just one of those things where [the ball] comes back to you and you react instinctively,” Hyndman said in explaining the miss. “It just went wide. I couldn’t believe it went wide.”
Atlanta started quickly, with Justin Meram’s deflected shot from distance putting the Five Stripes in front four minutes after the opening whistle. Meram was the beneficiary of slick interplay between Josef Martínez and Pity Martínez, and Daniel Vega had no chance at a save.
The early goal was not a sign of an impending rout. Under Argentine manager Matías Almeyda, the Earthquakes deploy a man-marking defensive system that is unlike anything in MLS. Early on, Atlanta struggled to build through the middle, so de Boer instructed his midfielders to drift wide and allow center back Miles Robinson to advance the ball through space. The Five Stripes were pressured all over the field.
San Jose (13-13-5, 44 points) leveled in the 27th when Cristian Espinoza’s pass across the 6-yard box caromed in off Brad Guzan for an own goal. Espinoza bested Meram in an individual duel at midfield and won a race to the end line before playing the decisive ball.
Espinoza’s time on the field was active, but short. After picking up a foolish yellow card for impeding an Atlanta throw-in on 17 minutes, he saw red for stamping on Franco Escobar’s calf 11 minutes from halftime.
Even down a man, San Jose threatened Atlanta. Hyndman leapt to his feet to make a vital clearing header that prevented a free shot at goal from close range in the 71st minute. Incredibly, Almeyda’s team did not show significant signs of tiring down the stretch.
Saturday’s victory clinched at least one home playoff game for Atlanta (17-11-3, 54 points). The Five Stripes are three points behind first-place New York City FC with three matches to play — including a trip to New York Wednesday. NYCFC has four games remaining and plays at FC Dallas Sunday. The Philadelphia Union, now sitting third two points behind Atlanta, have four games left. Philadelphia plays at the New York Red Bulls Sunday and hosts NYCFC on the final day of the regular season.
If the Five Stripes manage to claim the top spot, they will enjoy a first-round by and home-field advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
“The mentality we need to have going forward is to try to win all these games,” Hyndman said. “Then that gives us the best position in the playoffs, and the better the position, the easier it could be.”