ATLANTA — Josef Martinez scored, more than 70,000 fans showed up and Atlanta United FC won. Again.
Those three things have occurred so often this season that fans of the Five Stripes would be shocked if they didn’t happen.
But the stakes this time were bigger. This was no regular-season contest. This was the first leg of the Eastern Conference final in the Major League Soccer Cup Playoffs. And the opponent was no cupcake. It was the New York Red Bulls, who beat the Five Stripes twice this season. For Atlanta to have a chance in this playoff, it was imperative to get a result at home and to have an edge going into Thursday’s second leg at Red Bull Arena.
After Sunday, Atlanta United has that. In front of an announced crowd of 70,016 supporters, the Five Stripes beat the Red Bulls 3-0 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Goals from Martinez, Franco Escobar and Hector “Tito” Villalba paved the path to victory, and stingy defense over 90 minutes plus eight added minutes of stoppage time helped secure it.
“The first thing we can say is that we were finally able to beat them,” Atlanta head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said through a translator. “I think the team did a good job. It was a team win and we didn’t suffer aside from two situations on set pieces. We were solid defensively. I think the victory is deserved.”
Nov 25, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Franco Escobar (center) celebrates with teammates after scoring against the New York Red Bulls during the second half of the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)
Atlanta United found the back of the net in the 32nd minute thanks to solid service from Jeff Larentowicz and a strike from Josef Martinez. After receiving a short pass, Larentowicz dribbled up the field unmarked for a few seconds, gathered himself and then launched the ball toward the far post from about 25 yards out. Martinez out-jumped Tim Parker and won the ball, settled it, then sliced a shot between the post and Luis Robles from close range.
“If you’re asking me how I scored, I don’t know,” Martinez said through a translator. “If I had the same chance again, I’m not sure how I would handle it. … Scoring is my job, so I’m happy that I scored tonight.”
For Martinez, it marked his 34th goal of the year, including regular season and playoffs, which puts him first all-time on the MLS single-season scoring list. Roy Lassiter scored 33 goals total in 1996, Carlos Ruiz tallied 32 goals in 2002 and Bradley Wright-Phillips had 31 in 2014.
Martinez didn’t have many touches in the game, but his impact was felt with just one kick of his left foot. The Venezuelan forward also completed 11 passes and tallied a clearance. Martinez came into this game after a trip abroad with his country’s national team, where he played a total of 98 minutes in games against Japan and Iran. If he was at all fatigued by the travel or physicality of those games, it didn’t show.
In the 72nd minute, Martinez made a move that will go unnoticed on the stat sheet, but it created space for a teammate to have an open shot. Miguel Almiron carried the ball up the field and fed Julian Gressel as the versatile German sprinted into the box. Gressel played a low cross through the penalty area that looked to be headed towards Martinez, who was standing right in front of the goal.
But Martinez played the defense. He quickly and deftly stepped aside – pulling what is commonly referred to as a “dummy” – and let the ball roll by him. Escobar was waiting at the edge of the box and sprinted toward the ball, unleashing a shot that sailed past Robles for Atlanta’s second score of the game.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) November 25, 2018
“Miguel was charging at the defense, and I just see the space and make a run and he plays a great ball,” Gressel said. “I saw everyone running towards their own goal and saw that space back there, hoping for a second runner or Josef. Franco was there to finish it off cleanly. Great goal.”
The goal was the second of Escobar’s career with Atlanta United. The 23-year-old Argentine defender finished the game with an assist, three clearances, two tackles, an interception and 22 successful passes.
Martinez was subbed off in the 77th minute for Villalba, and the speedy substitute added an extra goal for Atlanta in stoppage time to seal the victory. Villalba received a pass from Escobar, dribbled toward the 18-yard line and took a shot that slipped just inside the post. It was the eighth goal of the season for Villalba, who battled nagging injuries all season.
“I don’t think it was an assist,” Escobar said through a translator. “I just gave the ball to Tito, he turned and scored a golazo with his left foot. Luckily, he scored the goal. It gives us a little more of an advantage going to New York.”
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) November 26, 2018
After just registering just one shot in the first half, it appeared the Red Bulls had equalized in the 53rd minute when Wright-Phillips kicked a volley from Aaron Long past Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan. But referee Kevin Stott signaled for a video review and the goal was disallowed. A spokesperson for MLS said Red Bulls defender Alex Muyl interfered by obstructing the line of sight of the goalkeeper.
The Red Bulls will host the second leg of the conference finals Thursday in Harrison, N.J. at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Heading into Red Bull Arena, the Five Stripes are in the driver’s seat. Stop the Red Bulls from scoring three goals, and Atlanta United will appear in its first ever MLS Cup Final. But that’s easier said than done. While Atlanta has a big advantage heading into the second leg, it has never beaten the Red Bulls on their turf.
“This is just the first half,” Martinez said. “We know we have to go to (Red Bull Arena) where we’ve never gotten a positive result.”
- Atlanta defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was given a yellow card in the 62nd
- The assist for Larentowicz was his second ever in the playoffs. His first came in 2009 when he was playing for the New England Revolution in a match vs. the Chicago Fire. Larentowicz had two assists for Atlanta in the regular season.
- New York’s Derrick Etienne subbed on for Daniel Royer in the 71st
- Atlanta’s Chris McCann subbed on for Greg Garza in the 83rd
- New York’s Marc Rzatkowski subbed on for Muyl in the 84th
- Atlanta’s Ezequiel Barco subbed on for Miguel Almiron in the 86th
- New York’s Brian White subbed on for Sean Davis in the 87th
— Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch) November 26, 2018