Apr 28, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United midfielder Kevin Kratz (32) applauds the fans after defeating the Montreal Impact at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Substitute Kevin Kratz scored twice from free kicks and Miguel Almirón also scored twice to help Atlanta United overcome a first-half deficit and defeat the Montreal Impact 4-1 Saturday afternoon at Mercedes Benz Stadium. Midfielder Saphir Taider got Montreal’s only tally.
The win pushed United into first place in the Eastern Conference, as they improved their record to 6-1-1. Second-place New York City FC will have a chance to regain the top spot Sunday when the club hosts FC Dallas.
The Impact, meanwhile, have now lost four games in a row and are at risk of falling below eighth place in the East.
While the return of attacking midfielder Hector Villalba offered a boost for Atlanta, the Impact entered the game dealing with a crisis in defense. Rod Fanni was missing due to injury and Víctor Cabrera was serving a red-card suspension. Montreal is also dealing with long-term injuries to Kyle Fisher and Zakaria Diallo.
The lack of centerbacks forced Impact coach Remi Garde to switch from a back three to a back-four formation, with Jukka Raitala, ordinarily a left-sided fullback, having to slot into central defense alongside Rudy Camacho.
United lined up in their usual, very attack minded 3-4-3 formation, lead by Josef Martínez, Ezequiel Barco and Almirón.
Despite their abject form and heavy underdog status, the Impact managed to grab the lead in the 13th minute. Defender Chris Duvall found himself deep in the Atlanta half and delivered a high, out swinging cross. Dropping into a space between two Atlanta defenders, the ball fell right into the path of Saphir Taider. The Algerian had made a late run forward from midfield and he dove to head the ball past goalkeeper Brad Guzan.
After that, it was all Atlanta.
However, the hosts were made to work for the win. Set up in a very low defensive block, the Impact defended well initially, clogging the middle of the field and forcing passes out wide. Atlanta had over 75 percent possession in the first half, but couldn’t make much of it.
The start of the second half was much the same, except now United were taking more risks. Villalba came on in place of the more defensive minded Jeff Larentowicz and Atlanta was leaving spaces for the Impact to exploit.
Seven minutes into the half, the visitors nearly capitalized, which would have doubled their lead. Alejandro Silva had a lot of space to shoot in the Atlanta box when he received a pass from Ignacio Piatti, but the Argentine’s blast was palmed away by Guzan.
United became more relentless in their incessant attacks. The breakthrough finally arrived in the 70th minute as the Impact were called for a penalty on a Chris Duvall handball. Chris McCann tried to head an aerial pass across the box, but it was blocked by Duvall’s extended arms. The penalty went to Almiron; he stepped up and struck low to Evan Bush’s left. The Montreal goalkeeper dove in the right direction, but the ball just went under him.
In the 78th minute, four minutes after coming off the bench, Kevin Kratz delivered the winner for Atlanta, his free kick curling over the Impact wall and into the top corner.
Now having to come out of their defensive shell for the first time, the Impact started to leave too many gaps and Almiron added a third goal. Martinez fed the ball to Almiron, who slotted the ball past a diving Bush into the left side of the net.
With seconds remaining, Kratz, summoned his inner David Beckham, scored a second free kick, this one even more dazzling as it was further out and it curved in low off the post.