ATLANTA — Atlanta United has reached the point of the season where the big tests arrive with more frequency and require additional urgency. A semifinal versus a geographic rival came Tuesday, a final against the one of the hemisphere’s biggest teams comes eight days later. In between, the Five Stripes met New York City FC in a game that could determine the top playoff seed in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference.
Atlanta passed this test, defeating NYCFC 2-1 Sunday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“We treat it like a final,” Franco Escobar said through an interpreter. “That’s how important of a game it was for us, and that’s how we planned for it to go. We knew it was a very important game. I thought we played well.
“Now it’s just about preparing for these important games that we have coming up.”
Josef Martínez was not expected to play a part for Atlanta, having strained his adductor in training Monday. Martínez missed Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal win at Orlando City, but when the Five Stripes tweeted out their starting lineup Sunday afternoon, there was his headshot at the top of the formation.
Martínez was in on the action early, lunging for a Julian Gressel cross and sending his shot high and wide in the second minute. Martínez clearly felt his injury and took time to stretch upon getting to his feet. Manager Frank de Boer did not ask any of his substitutes to warm up. Gressel found Martínez with another cross two minutes later. This time Sean Jonson made a kick save.
“Maybe he is still not 100 percent, but Josef on 95 or 90 percent is still a nice player,” de Boer said.
Three minutes from first-half stoppage time, Martínez struck. Gressel hit another pinpoint cross from the right flank, and the Venezuela international rose high above center back Maxime Chanot and smashed in a header from five yards. It was vintage Atlanta United, and another record for Josef Martínez. He now has scored in 10 consecutive Major League Soccer games, breaking the previous mark held by Diego Valeri and himself — twice.
“The header that he made, that’s top quality,” de Boer said.
Brad Guzan added that Josef Martínez’s abilities leave his teammates feeling “spoiled.”
“What record doesn’t he have?” the goalkeeper asked rhetorically. “The ball goes in the box and you just expect him to pop up and score from whatever angle, however difficult the pass is, the ball is. His first goal is world class. His ability, that separation in the box, and then to get power behind the header to beat Sean, that’s a fantastic finish.”
Martínez took seven shots and put five on target.
After the Pigeons’ burst of energy in the first 60 seconds, the opening 10 minutes belonged to Atlanta. The Five Stripes controlled 70 percent of the possession, took three shots (one on target) and earned three corners. New York City grew into the game as the half wore on, though it could not sustain play at a high level. It normally prefers to dominate with the ball, but Dome Torrent’s side looked far more dangerous on the counter early. A 23rd-minute breakout from an Atlanta corner saw Maxi Moralez play Taty Castellanos through on goal, but Guzan closed down the angle and saved to keep the score level.
Atlanta reasserted itself and finished the half with 66 percent possession and 10 shots, four on target. Perhaps more telling of the Five Stripes’ quality was nine shots came from inside the box. There was no settling for speculative efforts from distance. NYCFC took six shots in the first half, but only Castellanos’ was on target.
NYCFC (10-4-8, 38 points) was delayed coming out of halftime, no doubt taking words of advice and encouragement from Torrent. The second 45 minutes began in the same fashion as the first, with the visitors pressing and Atlanta quickly gaining control. Pity Martínez found an opportunity to shoot inside the penalty area two minutes into the half, but Johnson saved from a tight angle. A long diagonal from Leandro González-Pírez found Josef Martínez at the top of the area in the 52nd, but his first-time effort drifted wide.
Castellanos started at center forward for the Pigeons, replacing the normal first choice, Héber. The Argentine ran into a problem so many No. 9s have against Atlanta: Miles Robinson. The young American won duels against Castellanos all afternoon. Castellanos showed his frustration with a hard foul on his adversary in the 76th minute.
Robinson thought he put the home team in front when he headed in a Pity Martínez free kick on 33 minutes, but a VAR check revealed he pushed Alexander Callens in the back before scoring.
“It’s not my decision,” Robinson said with a laugh. “I wish I had it, but I guess if I was on the other end I might want [the foul called].”
Josef Martínez completed his brace from the penalty spot in the 63rd minute. He converted after Pity Martínez worked hard to win the chance. El Pity chased down a long ball and took possession with a hard shoulder-to-shoulder challenge against Chanot. He dribbled on James Sands in the area and drew the foul.
Aug 11, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; New York City FC midfielder Valentin Castellanos (11) gets off a shot in front of Atlanta United defender Miles Robinson (12) during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
De Boer has not hesitated to criticize Pity Martínez this season. Sunday, though, the manager offered praise.
“If you see everything, his work rate, the quality he showed, I think this was his best game,” de Boer said. “I gave him a compliment. In the last second he made a sliding tackle and we get a throw-in from there. Those things — he’s getting fitter of course, but also the quality and everything is there. … We are very happy with how he is playing right now.”
Pity Martínez downplayed his performance.
“I don’t know if it was my best game because I didn’t score, but I think I’m getting better as time goes on, which is the most important,” he said through an interpreter. “Adapting to the league more and more and continuing to learn, keep improving and trying to achieve what the team wants, which is to be as high [in the standings] as possible.”
Héber came on for Sands in the 66th minute and pulled a goal back in the 81st. The sequence started when Moralez sent in a cross, and Castellanos laid the ball off. Héber hit a hard, low shot from 17 yards under Guzan’s arm. Atlanta struggled to keep the ball in the final minutes, but it also created more dangerous chances on the break than anything NYCFC generated with its possession.
It was an entertaining game, worthy of the national-television billing. The final tally of chances created told the story. The Five Stripes outpaced the Pigeons 14-8. Gressel by himself created seven chances. NYCFC’s 42 percent possession was far below its conference-leading season average of 56.
“I think we took control [of the game] because we won every duel,” de Boer said. “I cannot say that somebody played not so good. Everybody played on a high standard. They played the same system as us, but I think we did it better today.”
Atlanta and New York City entered the game separated by a point in the Eastern Conference standings, with the Pigeons holding two games in hand. The Five Stripes (13-9-3, 42 points) moved four points clear of Sunday’s opponent and, for the time being, into first place on the wins tiebreaker over the Philadelphia Union. Atlanta’s next test comes Wednesday: a home date against Mexican giant Club América in the Campeones Cup.