Atlanta United put together its best performance of the season, a comprehensive 3-0 win at Sporting Kansas City Sunday night. The Five Stripes’ second and third goals were highlight-reel efforts from Ezequiel Barco and Josef Martínez, respectively. But it was the first goal, Martínez’s mad-scramble finish off a rebound, that inspired the breakthrough for Atlanta.
Goals change games, so the cliche goes, and Sunday night’s opener certainly did. Atlanta had most of the ball in the first 38 minutes, and Frank de Boer’s team was showing better passing and movement than what was on display in the 1-0 win over the Colorado Rapids a week prior. Still, there was room for improvement in the attack, and with Kansas City content to settle in a defensive low block, the Five Stripes were not creating high-quality chances. There were some signs of frustration building.
Enter Josef, who had been pulled out to the wings and deeper into midfield before pouncing in the 39th minute. Barco found enough space to shoot from distance, and goalkeeper Tim Melia, who should have done better with his parry, gave up a dangerous rebound. Martínez beat Melia to the second ball and put away his chance before crashing into the ’keeper and taking some time to recover, lying on the Children’s Mercy Park turf.
It was vintage Martínez, a poacher’s goal that required bodily sacrifice and some right-place-at-the-right-time fortune. It was not a thing of beauty, but it was exactly what Atlanta needed.
There's a reason he's the @MLS Goal King
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) May 6, 2019
“Goals change games, and Josef again puts his body on the line for the first one — a great goal,” Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan said after the game, per a quote sheet provided by the club. “His second one was even better.”
Taking an advantage into the second half boosted Atlanta’s confidence, and it forced Kansas City to open up in search of an equalizer. The result was a dominant 45 minutes to close the game. In the 47th minute, Barco picked up a loose ball and scored on a hard, low shot from 20 yards, a goal worthy of a Ray Hudson tweet. Martínez completed his brace in the 76th with a quality finish inside the box, weaving through Kansas City defenders and shooting over Melia after an excellent run and assisting pass from Barco.
Atlanta looked like the old Atlanta. With Toronto FC coming to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Wednesday, de Boer’s team must prove the victory over Kansas City was the first sign of a burgeoning trend, and not a one-hit wonder.
Ezequiel Barco on a new level
Barco was Atlanta’s best player Sunday. The 20-year-old Argentine infamously suffered through a difficult debut season in 2018. In 2019, he is beginning to reveal why the club broke Major League Soccer’s record for an incoming transfer fee to acquire his signature.
Miguel Almirón’s departure for Newcastle in the offseason has been discussed at length. The sort of influence Almirón exerted all over the field was always going to be difficult to replace. Against Kansas City, Barco show he might be willing to step up to fill the void.
To go along with his goal and assist, Barco took a total of six shots with three on target. He played four key passes, according to WhoScored, and completed 85 percent of his passes overall. He was successful on four of seven dribbles. Perhaps more importantly, Barco displayed a box-to-box engine when Atlanta was not in possession and recovered the ball four times in his defensive third.
There is a lot of soccer left to be played this season, but if Barco continues to build on the performances he has put in during Atlanta’s first eight games, he will be one of MLS’s superstars by October. It is a shame the Five Stripes will be without their little boat as he plays for Argentina in the Under-20 World Cup over the next month.
“He’s getting strong, you see in one-against-ones, he’s protecting the ball well, making good decisions,” de Boer said after the win. “It’s bad for us because you want one of your best players in form, you want to keep of course. Others have to stand up in that moment. I have confidence in all the other ones. It’s a pity that he’s not here, but we have another Pity, so he has to make the difference.”
That dad joke from de Boer will serve as a segue.
Improvement for El Pity
Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez’s struggles to start this season have been amplified because of the direct comparisons to Almirón he is forced to shoulder. In the same month, Miggy went to Newcastle and El Pity, the 2018 South American Footballer of the Year with River Plate, came to Atlanta. Pity Martínez’s game against Kansas City was not up to his or Almirón’s standard, but it is getting better.
Pity Martínez did not put any of his five shots on target, but he did not launch any into the stadium concourse, either, so that is a good sign. The 25-year-old completed 86 percent of his passes by keeping things simple in Kansas City’s half and thus keeping the ball moving. So many Atlanta attacks have died this season when Pity Martínez attempted too much with a shot or pass. That was not a problem Sunday. Neither was his body language when he subbed off in the 71st minute.
There was one moment in the game that was a clear example of how Pity Martínez and Almirón are different players, and it should end the comparisons. In the 37th minute, Atlanta won possession in its own half. With Kansas City pushed forward, Eric Remedi broke the press with a quick pass to Pity Martínez, who received the ball in the middle of the field, near the halfway line. Pity Martínez hit a first-time backward pass to Darlington Nagbe, and Atlanta settled into possession.
“It’s just a great moment for transition for Atlanta United,” an incredulous Stu Holden said on the FS1 television broadcast. “They work that first line of press from Sporting KC, and he has Barco wide open on the left side.”
Every Atlanta fan watching had to be surprised because of what became so normal in 2017 and ’18. How many times, in the same scenario, would Almiron turn and race up field, instead of playing a conservative back pass? Sometimes Almirón’s pedal-to-the-floor mentality on the ball would result in a loss of possession, but often, it was the source of Atlanta’s goals: lightning-fast, transitional attacks that left an opponent picking the ball out of its net before it knew what had happened.
This is different, but it is not necessarily bad. The spell of possession that Pity Martínez started with the aforementioned back pass ended in a dangerous chance and corner kick for Atlanta. If he continues to improve, El Pity will finish similar situations with goals and assists. Atlanta still has the potential to be explosive, just a different kind of explosive than everyone has come to expect.