ATLANTA — With no Zlatan Ibrahimović, the LA Galaxy were no match for Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Saturday evening. Atlanta cruised to a 3-0 victory thanks to a pair of first-half own goals and a Josef Martínez penalty.
Having fully recovered from a knee injury, Ezequiel Barco returned to Atlanta’s starting XI for the first time since June 18. Héctor “Tito” Villalba was in the game-day 18 for the first time since May 19, though did not play. With familiar faces coming back, the Five Stripes looked a little like their old selves. They traded patient possession for quick, vertical play.
“Against Galaxy, we already said there was a lot of possibility in transition,” Atlanta coach Frank de Boer said. “We have to play those balls forward as quick as possible because we have Pity [Martínez] and Josef, especially Pity between the lines, of course, and Barco a little bit higher up. So we could find those guys.”
Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez did not get credit for the opening goal, but he created it. Atlanta moved from its defensive to attacking third with two passes from Florentin Pogba and Barco in the 23rd minute. With the ball at Pity Martinez’s foot, Jørgen Skjelvik backed off and allowed Atlanta’s No. 10 to dribble into the penalty area and hit a square ball. Galaxy center back Dave Romney deflected the ball past goalkeeper David Bingham.
Twenty minutes later, Atlanta doubled its lead on another Galaxy own goal. After collecting a pass from Miles Robinson at the top of the area, Josef Martínez laid the ball off for Justin Meram on the left wing. Josef Martínez continued his run into the box, and Meram sent in a first-time cross. Josef Martínez would have scored, but center back Giancarlo González cleared the ball into his own net.
The Five Stripes may have enjoyed some good fortune on their goals, but Atlanta (12-9-3, 39 points) created numerous quality chances in the first half. In particular, Barco played an inch-perfect through ball to find Pity Martínez’s run behind the LA back line, and Bingham saved El Pity’s shot off the post. Replay showed Pity Martínez was a step offside on his original run, but it was the kind of link-up between the two Argentines Atlanta fans have longed to see this season.
“When you look at games, rarely in the last few months have you seen Pity, Barco and Josef on the field at the same time,” Jeff Larentowicz said. “The characteristics of those players are ones where they’re going to get in the pockets, they’re going to turn and they’re going to get in behind midfielders and push the team forward. Tonight, with the personnel we had, the back three were extremely solid, and when the ball turned over, those guys were in dangerous spots to press.
“I said to [Darlington Nagbe] at halftime, he and I were saying, ‘Man, they’ve got a lot of guys in midfield.’ But I think that LA was probably in their locker room saying, ‘Man, we can’t get to these guys behind us.”
Aug 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan (1) stops a shot by Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Uriel Antuna (18) during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Josef Martínez converted from the spot in the 72nd minute. Referee Drew Fischer awarded the penalty after a video review. The goal was Martínez’s 18th in Major League Soccer play this season. He has now scored in nine consecutive MLS games, tying a record he already co-owned.
“We always play offensive at home,” the Venezuelan said in the locker room, tempering the praise. “The problem is we have to improve when we play on the road, because you guys saw tonight, games like this, we’re very good at home, but we need to have that same mentality when we play on the road. But this was a good step, and now we have another very important game on Tuesday [at Orlando City in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals].”
With Ibrahimović missing due to a yellow-card suspension, winger Uriel Antuna started at center forward for the Galaxy, which fell to 12-10-1, 37 points. The Mexico international threatened to punish Atlanta on the counter with his speed throughout the evening, but Robinson regularly snuffed out his opportunities. Antuna took two shots, one on target. Brad Guzan charged out to make a smothering save on the 21-year-old in the fifth minute.
Robinson also found more involvement in the attacking phase.
“What also was very positive for me, how Miles played today, especially with the ball also,” de Boer said in his postgame press conference. “He had some good, we call it provoking, dribbling in and then passing to the free man in between lines. He did that fantastic. We already said it many times to him, ‘look to those balls.’ Today, he found those spaces, and it was really nice to see.”
Pogba stepped into the starting XI for Leandro González-Pírez, who was on a yellow-card suspension of his own. He filled in admirably and finished with eight recoveries, two blocked shots, two clearances, one tackle and one interception. Meram, still learning the defensive side of his new wingback role, was thankful to have Pogba offering him cover at the back.
“Playing with Pogba, with his strength and his abilities, was helpful,” Meram said.
Barco played 62 minutes before making way for Emerson Hyndman. The 20-year-old was Atlanta’s best player during his time on the field. It was clear he did not miss a beat after his long absence.
Atlanta ended the game atop the Eastern Conference, leading the Philadelphia Union via the wins tiebreaker. De Boer’s players were quick to dismiss talk of the Five Stripes’ place in the standings, but the manager said it is indicative of his team’s ability.
“I think we are capable and we have the quality to be on top in first,” de Boer said. “I think with the quality we have on our roster, we have to compete for first place, there’s no doubt about it.
“We want to be on top. We want to be the hunted. So hopefully we can continue that.”