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Atlanta United players focused heading into Leg 2 of Eastern Conference final

Nov 25, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United forward Hector Villalba (15) reacts after defeating the New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — Atlanta United FC did something it had never done before on Sunday. The club finally beat the New York Red Bulls.

With a 3-0 win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Five Stripes are taking a sizeable advantage into the second leg of the Eastern Conference finals of the Major League Soccer Cup Playoffs. While Atlanta players were joyful after their victory, they also kept the win in perspective.

That was just one half. There’s still 90 more minutes left to play. And while the Five Stripes beat the Red Bulls on Sunday, they’ve never left Harrison, N.J., with anything better than a draw.

“We’ve got to be intense,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “We can’t take our foot off the gas. We can’t go up there and just defend for 90 minutes. We need to play like this from here on out and that goes for the second leg of this series and if the stars align, if we can make it to the final here, then great. We need to play like this. This was a proper performance from start to finish.”

At the end of 90 minutes on Thursday, the match will go into extra time if the Red Bulls are winning 3-0. Anything less, and Atlanta United will advance to the MLS Cup. A 4-0 win or a 5-1 win, and the Red Bulls will proceed to the cup final.

The odds are stacked against the Red Bulls. FiveThirtyEight gives them just a 6 percent chance of advancing to the cup final. But Chris Armas’ side did beat the Columbus Crew 3-0 in the second leg of the conference semifinals at Red Bull Arena. Atlanta coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino hasn’t reminded his team of that yet, but he’ll make sure that possibility is on their minds as the Five Stripes train this week.

“I didn’t want to be so pessimistic on such a happy afternoon,” Martino said through a translator. “We know the Red Bulls are a very good team and they are capable of scoring three goals at home. The only thing we know that we are satisfied with this win, but we have to get ready for the next game.”

Since putting on a blunder of a performance in Toronto to end the regular season, Atlanta United is 3-0 with an aggregate score of 7-1. They’ve posted two clean sheets and five different players have scored. The Five Stripes are arguably playing their best stretch of soccer right now, in the middle of the post season.

Full health, a first choice Starting XI

One of the reasons why Atlanta United has been a roll lately is because most of the team is finally returning to full health. On Sunday, the only regular first team players out with injuries were Romario Williams and Mikey Ambrose.

Greg Garza has returned from his mid-season shoulder surgery and has played well at right back. Jeff Larentowicz returned to the starting lineup after missing the second leg vs. NYCFC with a muscular injury. Darlington Nagbe didn’t seem to be slowed by a hamstring strain that kept him away from national team camp, and Miguel Almiron has regained his full fitness after dealing with a hamstring issue at the end of the regular season.

After battling nagging injuries all year, Hector “Tito” Villalba is healthy too, but there was no room for him in the starting lineup. This is a good problem for Martino to have. There is no other team in the league that has two Designated Player-quality footballers like Villalba and Ezequiel Barco coming off the bench.

On Sunday, Villalba showed that he can provide a late spark. He sprinted circles around Tyler Adams and the Red Bulls’ defense and slotted home a shot in stoppage time that gave Atlanta it’s three-goal lead. In a two-legged series, that goal could prove to be an important one.

And for Villalba’s confidence going forward in the playoffs, that goal could be massive. It was the first time the 24-year-old speedster had scored since Sept. 22. After he scored, he shed a few tears.

“It just came from all year. I’ve been in and out with injuries. It just came from all the hard work I’ve been doing,” Villalba said through a translator. “I had the feeling the I was going to score. That’s the mentality I have every time I go on the field.”

In just 22 minutes, Villalba fired three shots, two of which landed on target. He also completed four passes and tallied a tackle. Barco played well too, creating a chance, completing all of his passes and drawing a foul. Chris McCann also returned from injury to relieve Garza towards the end of the match.

The 18-man roster was so stacked on Sunday that one of Atlanta’s homegrowns couldn’t crack it. That’s been rare to see this season as Martino has often included either Andrew Carleton or George Bello in many of his game-day rosters.

“That helps and that’s what you want this time of year, to kind of have the guys ready to go,” Julian Gressel said of the club’s health. “It’s good to have everyone healthy and available for selection. You see today, Barco comes in, Tito comes in, and they did a great job. Chris comes back and does a great job relieving Greg. Tito scores and Barco did a great job bringing a lot more intensity.”

Bottling up BWP

One of the most feared goal scorers in the league over the past five seasons has been Bradley Wright-Phillips. The 33-year-old English forward scored 20 goals in the regular season and is a two-time MLS Golden Boot winner.

But on Sunday, he had little impact on the game. Wright-Phillips had one meaningful touch, when he scored off a volley from Aaron Long, but the goal was waived off and disallowed for offside interference.

Wright-Phillips finished the game with 29 touches and two shots, neither of which landed on-target. He completed just 66 percent of his 15 passes.

Gressel is typically a wing player for Atlanta United, but played centrally on Sunday and had a big part in denying chances to Wright-Phillips.

“It kind of starts with us getting good pressure and not allowing the service,” Gressel said. “(Wright-Phillips) obviously has great movement in the box, and I think that was a set piece on his (disallowed) goal, but every time he was going to run a play, we had somebody covering the crosses, getting a little touch, at least not letting them hit free crosses in the box to find him. I think that was key to denying the service to him.”

Gressel finished the game with two tackles and a blocked shot. In total, the Five Stripes tallied 18 tackles and three blocked shots. The Red Bulls mustered just six shot attempts with only one landing on-target.

Change since Toronto

Since losing 4-1 to Toronto to end the regular season, Atlanta has buckled down on defense and allowed just one goal over its last three games. On Sunday, both sides mucked the game up with chippy play. There were only 17 fouls called and just one yellow card handed out, but referee Kevin Stott let a lot of plays slide.

Sometimes, ugly plays are required to win.

“It’s not a pretty one,” Garza said when asked about the style it takes to beat the Red Bulls. “I think all playoffs that you see all over the world – especially in Mexico and U.S., the ones that I’ve been involved in – they’re not the prettiest games. What matters most is who comes out on top, and I think we did that with the hard work we put in this week.”

That loss to Toronto keeps coming up, but it was an important turning point in the season for Atlanta United. There was a lot on the line in that game – a win would’ve set the all-time points record in MLS, the Five Stripes would’ve captured the Supporters’ Shield and they would’ve had the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs. But Atlanta played sloppy and were whupped by a Toronto team with nothing to play for but pride.

Atlanta could’ve folded. In front of them was a tough road with games against NYCFC and the Red Bulls. Instead, after Martino, Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst spoke to the team, Atlanta corrected its mistakes.

“Toronto was a bit of a wake-up call. It was not the type of performance or the type of fight that we want to have in our group. The playoffs bring a different setting to the table where it’s do or die,” Gressel said. “Those guys are leaders that know what it takes. They made sure everyone was aware of the situation… We tried to just get away from the Toronto game because it wasn’t great. It was bad. We wanted to move on. Playoffs are a new season.”

In this new season, Atlanta’s strong play has led it to a point where it’s one solid performance away from going to the MLS Cup final.

“It’s going to be challenging,” Parkhurst said. “We know nothing is over yet. We’ve put ourselves in a good spot,and that’s it… Just enjoy the moment, play up to it, play with passion, play for the city, and go out there and fight. It doesn’t have to be pretty.”




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