ATLANTA — Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez, the 2018 South American footballer of the year who joined Atlanta United for a Major League Soccer record transfer fee in January, did not feature in the Five Stripes’ 1-0 MLS Cup playoff win over the New England Revolution Saturday. Asked about his decision to sit El Pity, manager Frank de Boer left open the possibility Martínez could return to the starting lineup in this postseason. Everything de Boer said before that made it clear Martínez has started his last game for Atlanta in 2019.
“Right now, I think, with the three in midfield of Emerson Hyndman, Jeff [Larentowicz] and Darlington [Nagbe] is a good balance,” de Boer told reporters. “Then, I have one spare spot left in that position and that’s either [Ezequiel] Barco or Pity. Now I’m choosing for Barco, and he is doing well. I have choices always, but for me, I didn’t have any reasons to change him for Pity.”
De Boer played the same lineup — save for Michael Parkhurst replacing injured center back Miles Robinson — that defeated New England on the final day of MLS’ regular season two weeks ago. The manager has made it clear the midfield balance of Hyndman, Larentowicz and Nagbe is more important than fielding two dynamic players in Barco and Martínez. Atlanta’s No. 10 can play passes unmatched by anyone else on the team, but his defensive engine is far too inconsistent — non-existent at times — for de Boer’s liking in a single-elimination tournament.
“Well, I think Pity is always a player for the No. 10 position, and Hyndman is one of the three midfielders,” de Boer said. “I think you can play with Barco and Pity like we did versus Minnesota [in the U.S. Open Cup final], but the discipline that Emerson does and what he brings defensively in our box, that’s the balance that I’m searching for.
“Of course, you can play with players like [Martínez], but it’s a big risk. I know that Emerson is very comfortable on the ball, and he combined well with Barco and Darlington, and they are three players who are very comfortable playing in small triangles. So, I had no reason to change. In the future it could change, but right now for me this is the best balance in the midfield. I look at the opponent always, and maybe next time it will be different.”
Martínez got off to a wretched start this season and criticized his manager in the media. He has improved in recent months and delivered some big moments for his team, including winning goals against D.C. United in regular-season play and Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final. In his last five appearances, Martínez has two goals and two assists. His long history of playing well in important games has netted 11 trophies in his career. Still, Martínez has never lived up to the hype that came with his price tag. And with the season on the line in every game going forward, de Boer does not trust Martínez’s positives to outweigh his negatives.
“It was just a decision that Frank made,” Julian Gressel said of Martínez’s absence. “It was just that mindset from the coaching staff and we’ve trained like that all week. Pity was obviously upset at first, but today, he did a good job being up for it and being a good teammate supporting us. I’m sure we’re going to need him down the stretch.”
No doubt, Atlanta will need Martínez to offer his support as a good teammate. Perhaps he will be called upon to make an impact in a substitute appearance. But de Boer seemingly has settled on a lineup that he trusts to get a result. It is hard to imagine he will change his mind.
Barco finds top form
If the choice is between Martínez and Barco, it would take poor form from the latter to force de Boer into a change. Barco showed Saturday his form is as good as it ever has been with Atlanta.
The 20-year-old showed great control, vision and passing ability on his game-winning assist. Barco made the goal happen with a quick decision.
“It was a very fast play,” he said. “I had maybe decided to shoot on goal, but one of their defenders covered me, and I saw Franco as soon as he made the run, and I tried to give it to him so he could finish.”
The assist was only a piece of Barco’s fantastic afternoon. He was Atlanta’s best player during his 88 minutes, constantly winning possession and advancing the ball for his team. It was not a vintage Miguel Almirón performance, but if you squinted, you could see some similarities in Barco’s contribution.
Ezequiel Barco vs the Revs today
4 chances created 😳
39 completed passes
4/5 dribbles completed
10/11 duels won ⬅️ this is insane
5 fouls drawn
6 defensive recoveries
The game-winning assist
— MLS Buzz (@MLS_Buzz) October 19, 2019
Last year, Barco was the designated player who could not crack Atlanta’s starting XI in the postseason. He played 17 total minutes in the Five Stripes’ five playoff games. Barco has come back from that, and despite a spotty regular season broken up by the Under-20 World Cup and two lengthy injury layoffs, he is one of Atlanta’s most important players.
So there is hope for Martínez to bounce back in 2020, if he remains in Atlanta.
Franco Escobar, Mr. Playoffs
The legend of Franco Escobar continued to grow Saturday.
No matter how long he stays with Atlanta, Josef Martínez will be the club’s first legend thanks to his goals, records and quotes. But Escobar is creating a legendary reputation in his own right. The defender’s game-winning goal against the Revs was his fifth strike in an Atlanta shirt. Three of those goals have come in playoff games. When Escobar rippled the back of the net in the 70th minute, Fox Sports South broadcaster Kevin Egan called the Argentine “Mr. Playoffs.”
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) October 19, 2019
“Escobar playoffs, I don’t know what the story is there,” Julian Gressel said after the game. “It must be a love relationship or something. I like that Escobar the most. It’s definitely a good one for him to come out again and score a big goal for us tonight. It should give him some confidence in moving on to the next round.”
Escobar struggled down the stretch of this long season, but he looked different against New England. In an early dust-up with Revolution forward Cristian Penilla, he showed the fire that was on display during Atlanta’s title run in 2018, but has not been as evident this season. Escobar played well as a center back in Atlanta’s back-three and at right back when de Boer switched to a back-four. He was error free in defense and supported the attack with many runs forward throughout the game.
The goal was a deserved reward for Escobar’s performance.
“I work just as hard as any other game and somehow destiny is for these matches,” he said. “I tend to work and luck is on my side for these matches.”
In evenly matched tournament games, unsung heroes are often required to provide the winning edge. Escobar once again proved he is up to the task.
“He has a gift,” Josef Martínez said. “I’m very happy. Nobody expected him to be at the second post, but we celebrated that goal like we had just won the championship. I think these are the important games, and he always shows up.”