ATLANTA — The style of play that Gerardo “Tata” Martino has implemented during his tenure as head coach of Atlanta United encourages defenders to be attack-minded and get involved the creation of scoring opportunities.
On Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with the sun shining down and a cool breeze coming through the open roof, two fullbacks for the Five Stripes created goals that led Atlanta to victory.
A goal from Franco Escobar and a Chicago Fire own-goal that was spurred by a Chris McCann cross helped the Five Stripes continue their march towards the Supporters’ Shield, capturing a 2-1 victory in front of an announced crowd of 71,812 fans, the sixth largest for a single match in MLS history.
With the win, Atlanta (21-6-6) maintained its one-point lead over the New York Red Bulls, who beat the Philadelphia Union on Sunday, in the race for the Supporters’ Shield and the top seed in the MLS playoffs.
While the race for the Shield is still on, Atlanta secured a berth in the 2019 Concacaf Champions League by posting the league’s highest combined points total from the 2017 and 2018 regular seasons. The competition will be drawn in December and tournament play will begin in February 2019.
“It’s always nice to achieve goals,” Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst said. “We wanted to avoid a first round game, we did that. We wanted to qualify for Champions League, we did that. And we want to win the Supporters’ Shield. That’s next.”
To beat Chicago (8-18-7) and maintain its place atop the table, Atlanta had to win Sunday without the help of two its best play-makers, Miguel Almiron and Hector “Tito” Villalba, who were both out nursing leg injuries. Martino leaned on a pair of teenagers, Ezequiel Barco and Andrew Carleton, to supplant the attack.
“I thought (Carleton) did a good job,” said Atlanta midfielder Darlington Nagbe. “He had some clean touches. I felt like, overall from everyone, it wasn’t our cleanest or our sharpest, but overall (Carleton) did a good job. He looked like he belonged.”
Carleton, a 19-year-old Homegrown, took three shots, won a tackle and had six successful passes in the final third in the victory.
Although he wasn’t credited with an assist, Escobar’s goal — his first of the season — was the result of a superb feed from Barco. In the ninth minute, as Escobar charged down the right wing, Barco threaded a long, flawless pass through the midfield that put Escobar in the box.
Escobar took a touch, then quickly passed to Josef Martinez, who was in front of the goal. But the ball was knocked away and rolled back to Escobar, who took a left-footed shot that bounced past Fire keeper Patrick McLain and landed softly in the back of the net.
Not only was it his first goal for Atlanta, but Escobar said it was the first time he had ever scored with his left foot.
“I don’t think it will happen again, but the important thing is it helped serve the team today and helped us win,” Escobar said through a translator. “I hit it as hard as I could, but I don’t know. I think it was luck.”
Oct 21, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) heads the ball away from Chicago Fire forward Raheem Edwards (7) defending a corner kick during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
In addition to his goal, Escobar also tallied two tackles, an interception and was 84 percent accurate on 44 passes. The 23-year-old Argentine defender has made 19 starts with Atlanta United this season. Escobar signed with the Five Stripes this past off-season after playing with Martino’s former club, Newell’s Old Boys.
Barco, 19, played 86 minutes, the most playing time he’s been given since Aug. 24. He drew three fouls and was accurate on 84 percent of his passes.
The Fire quickly responded with an equalizer in the 24th minute. After a giveaway from Nagbe, Bastian Schweinsteiger fed a pass through the Atlanta defense. Michael de Leeuw slipped behind the Five Stripes’ back line and sliced a shot past Brad Guzan for his second goal of the season.
But the game turned less than two minutes later as the Fire gift-wrapped the momentum, put a bow on it and handed it back to Atlanta. In the 26th minute, McCann fired a low hard cross from the right wing that looked to be rolling into McLain’s mitts. But, in an attempt to kick the ball away, Fire defender Johan Kappelhof slid into the shot and it bounced into Chicago’s goal.
Without Almiron and Villalba, Atlanta had to play a little differently on Sunday. Not only were Carleton and Barco called on to step up, but Eric Remedi, Julian Gressel and Nagbe combined for a free flowing and interchangeable midfield that attempted to make up for Almiron’s ability to track back on defense and create chances, and Villalba’s ability to use speed to make runs that cut through defenses.
The trio of versatile midfielders combined for three chances created, four tackles, two interceptions and 175 touches. Nagbe led all players in the match with a passing accuracy of 92.3 percent.
“It was fun to just kind of go around and get the ball in different areas of the field and things like that,” Nagbe said. “We freed up ourselves that way. I thought we did a good job. (Chicago) did a good job of trying to track us and defend us as well, I thought.”
Neither side found the back of the net for the remainder of the match, but Atlanta had plenty of chances to add to its lead. The Five Stripes tallied 13 shots on the day, five of which landed on-target.
Two of those on-target shots were from Martinez, who went scoreless for his fourth straight game. The Venezuelan striker set the MLS single-season record earlier this year and has found the back of the net 30 times in 33 matches in 2018. However, since setting that record on Aug. 24, he has scored just twice through seven matches. Martinez was credited with an assist on Escobar’s goal, his sixth of the year.
“He’s a team player,” Parkhurst said of Martinez. “And the win is the most important thing. He’s doing a lot of other things to help this team win right now.”
Atlanta will go on the road to try for its next victory, facing Toronto F.C. on Oct. 28.
“We want to go there and win the game. (Toronto) probably don’t want us to win the Supporters’ Shield on their home field, so it’s going to be a tough match,” Gressel said. “We will be ready though.”
- Sunday marked the first time this season that defender Jeff Larentowicz did not start for Atlanta United. Larentowicz, 35, is a 14-year MLS veteran and is fourth all-time in games played by a field player with 390 appearances. He has started 26 games in the midfield for Atlanta this year and has six other starts on the back line. He has two assists and one goal this season. Larentowicz subbed on in the 67th minute for Carleton.
- Atlanta United academy product Lagos Kunga made the 18-man game-day roster for the first time in his career. Kunga, 20, played in the MLS Homegrown Game this year during the All-Star break. Kunga played in 31 USL games this season with ATL UTD 2 and tallied five goals, two assists and 27 key passes.
- Atlanta United set new MLS records with a total home attendance of 901,033 fans and a single-season average of 53,002 fans after Sunday’s crowd. Both marks surpassed Atlanta’s own records set in its inaugural 2017 season.
- Atlanta United team president Darren Eales said this about qualifying for the Concacaf Champions League in a statement: “It speaks volumes about our club that we finished with the highest two-year points total in MLS in our first two of years of existence. When we launched this club two years ago, we set high expectations to win championships, compete on a global stage and to extend our brand into international markets.”
— Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch) October 21, 2018