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Josef Martinez ties MLS single-season goal record; Atlanta United beats Columbus Crew 3-1

Aug 19, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Columbus Crew midfielder Will Trapp (6) prepares for a game against the Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — It took just 31 minutes for Josef Martinez to create a highlight in Atlanta United FC’s match vs. Columbus Crew SC, but it was a play later in the game that locked up the win for his side.

The runaway leader in Major League Soccer’s Golden Boot race scored the game-opening goal in the first half, a strike that tied him with three others for the MLS single-season record for goals. But it was an assist from Martinez that sealed the game for Atlanta in the 82nd minute.

Receiving a pass from Hector “Tito” Villalba at the top of the box, Martinez unselfishly passed up an opportunity to break that record and instead served up the ball to Miguel Almiron, who scored on a left-footed shot from about 20 yards out. That extended the advantage to 3-1 for the Five Stripes, who coasted the rest of the way in front of announced crowd of 45,309 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday afternoon.

It was the ninth goal of the season and first since June 30 for Almiron, who took his jersey off and whipped it around in celebration. Villalba and Martinez were both credited with assists on the goal.

“I’m happy for (Almiron) because I think he’s been suffering lately,” Martinez said through a translator. “I don’t remember the last time he scored, but I know it’s been a while and I think he’s been feeling some of the pressure, so I was happy for him. I think it’s important for him… Not only the strength, but just to have the patience and perseverance to get that goal.”

For Martinez, the assist was his fourth on the season. He is typically on the other end of chances that result in goals for Atlanta (15-4-6). His record-tying strike in the 31st minute extended his goal-scoring streak to eight consecutive games. If he scores in Atlanta’s next game he’ll tie Diego Valeri’s record for consecutive games with a goal.

Julian Gressel set up Martinez for that goal by intercepting a pass at midfield and then playing the ball to him. The two ran down the field with three Crew defenders. Martinez used Gressel briefly as a decoy, glancing at him for a possible pass, but cut to his left instead, then fired a left-footed shot around a defender from just inside the perimeter of the penalty box. The low and hard shot beat Zack Steffen at the near post for Martinez’s 27th goal of the season.

After scoring, Martinez grabbed the ball and tucked it under his shirt, almost making it look like he was pregnant. He said after the game that the celebration was a tribute to his aunt, who lives with him and is actually pregnant. Martinez said he’s thought about celebrating that way for a while now, but wanted it to be a special occasion.

After blowing kisses into the air, clapping and kissing the ball, Martinez removed the record-setting ball from under his shirt and chucked it into the stands, giving one fan a legendary souvenir.

Martinez joins Roy Lassiter, Chris Wondolowski and Bradley Wright-Phillips in an exclusive club of the only players to score 27 goals in a single MLS season.

Gressel was credited with an assist on the play, giving him nine for the season, which tied the total from his MLS Rookie of the Year performance in 2017. Gressel has assisted on eight of Martinez’s goals.

“It’s actually funny. I thought about it throughout the week. I felt early on in the season, when we played in the 3-5-2, and I played as a right wingback, it kind of didn’t click for me and Josef,” Gressel said. “I would cross it to a spot where he would make the run to a different point, but then, after a while, we just started working on it a little more… I started keeping my head up a little longer to wait to where he makes the run.

“Today was a little different, but Josef is just a clinical finisher. You just need to give him the ball inside the 18, or outside today, and he will do the rest.”

Columbus (11-8-6) notched the equalizer in the 50th minute after a short Atlanta goal kick that was collected by the Crew. Wil Trapp got a hold of the ball and played it upfield to Gyasi Zardes. After four touches, the 26-year-old striker unleashed a 24-yard right-footed shot that zoomed past Brad Guzan and landed in the back of the net. It was his 15th goal of the season.

“I saw Wil dribbling across the field and I looked around and saw myself wide open,” Zardes said. “Wil made an amazing pass on this turf and just turned and tried to put it on frame, far post.”

Villalba broke the tie for Atlanta in the 77th minute. He collected a clearance from Jeff Larentowicz at midfield and then, like a video game, pressed the sprint button until he reached the Columbus goal. Villalba ran past a defender, then sliced by two more, before firing a left-footed shot across his body that beat a diving Steffen.

It was the fourth goal of the season for Villalba, who also has eight assists.

“It was kind of like a goal from FIFA. When I play it with Atlanta and I play with myself or Miguel, I make runs like that,” Villalba said. “Those are goals where everything comes very fast and you have to make a quick decision. Once I passed the first centerback, I was going to play the ball, but I didn’t have my head up, so I didn’t know who was running with me, whether it was Miguel or Josef. So, I took an extra step and at that point the best option was to finish it.”

Villalba’s score also broke a streak for Atlanta. Before that, Martinez had notched the last nine goals for the club. Sunday marked the third time that Almiron, Villalba and Martinez have all scored in the same game.

The Five Stripes lead MLS in points (51) and goals scored (53) this season. On Friday in Orlando, they’ll have the chance to continue their chase for the Supporter’s Shield, and with a goal, Martinez will have the opportunity to cement himself in the MLS record books as the league’s greatest single-season scorer.

“When I get to 28 (goals), then I’ll have (thoughts on the record),” Martinez said. “I tied it, but what I really want is to break (the record). Once I was break it, I’ll be even more happier.”

NOTES…

  • Ezequiel Barco returned to the 18-man roster for a league match for the first time since July 15. He was benched by the club and Gerardo Martino for three matches for what Martino called “an act of indiscipline.” Barco, 19, entered the match in the 74th minute, subbing on for Gressel. Barco, who came to MLS on a reported record transfer fee of $15 million from Argentine side Independiente, has scored four goals this season.
  • Sunday marked the first time Jose Hernandez was featured on the gameday roster for Atlanta United. A 21-year-old Venezuelan defender, he was signed by the Five Stripes this offseason from Caracas, a club in his native country. Hernandez has played in 10 games for ATL UTD 2 this season, the club’s USL affiliate, tallying 15 interceptions, 16 clearances, a 79 percent passing accuracy and eight successful crosses.
  • Five yellow cards were handed out in the match, including four to Atlanta United players. Villalba, Almiron, Guzan and Chris McCann were given yellows, as was Columbus midfielder Artur.

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