Apr 15, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Michael Parkhurst (3), defender Greg Garza (4), midfielder Ezequiel Barco (8), and defender Jeff Larentowicz (18) react after their game against New York City at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
With stoppage time ticking away, Atlanta United F.C.’s Julian Gressel charged up the right side of the field and launched in a low cross to Josef Martínez.
The ball was well-played by Gressel, and if the Five Stripes were playing against even an average goalkeeper, it would’ve turned into a score. But on Sunday, in front of an announced 45,001 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, New York City F.C.’s Sean Johnson was no mediocre keeper.
The 28-year-old Lilburn, Ga., native leapt out of the goal, beat Martínez to the ball and knocked it away, ending Atlanta’s chances of getting three points. The final whistle blew moments later and Major League Soccer’s top two Eastern Conference teams each left with a single point, the game ending in a 2-2 tie.
“We talked in pregame about whenever the centerback is running back towards their own goal, just cross it as early as you can and put it in space because Josef or Miguel [Almirón] are quick enough to get in front of it,” Gressel said. “(Johnson is) a good goalie. It was just unfortunate because Josef was there. But he’s a good keeper and they’re a good team all around.”
Almirón created the chances that led to both goals for Atlanta (4-1-1, 13 points), while David Villa sent home a penalty kick and added an assist for NYCFC (5-0-2, 17 points).
Villa’s play twice tied up the match for NYCFC. He entered the game in the 35th minute when Ismael Tajouri-Shradi went down with an apparent injury. Three minutes later, Villa connected on a penalty kick after Michael Parkhurst slid into Jo Inge Berget in the box.
Then, in the 73rd minute, he dribbled into the box and drew three Atlanta defenders toward him before cutting back and placing a perfect ball in front of an unmarked Alexander Ring. For his first NYCFC goal, the native of Finland settled the ball from Villa, let it roll a bit to his right, then blasted it past a diving Brad Guzan, the ball bouncing down into the net after it hit the crossbar.
“I think we maybe sat a little bit too deep and (Ring) had too much time to step up and shoot,” said Atlanta defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz. “Still, he’s pretty far out. I had the opportunity to close him down and I probably didn’t get close enough. It was just one of those plays where you just say, ‘That’s a good shot,’ and you move on. He hit it well and to the one place Brad couldn’t get it.”
Atlanta United got on the board first when Greg Garza found himself in the right place at the right time to clean up some mess.
As Almirón diced through and danced around defenders near the top of the box, Garza kept running up the left side of the field, like a power forward in basketball filling the lane on a fast break while the point guard creates at the top of the key. Almirón eventually created enough space for a solid shot attempt, but it was swiped away by the right hand of Johnson.
When the ball bounced from Johnson’s mitt, Garza was there to tap the ball in for Atlanta’s first goal of the day in the 29th minute. It was the 26-year-old’s first goal of the season and the third of his two-season career with the Five Stripes.
The Five Stripes celebrated in the 41st minute when it looked like they were going up 2-1 after a goal from Darlington Nagbe. Julian Gressel played the ball to Nagbe at the top of the box, and he one-timed it with his right foot, sending it past Johnson into the back of the net.
But referee Allen Chapman waived the goal off after a VAR review. Chapman said Martínez was offsides and interfered with Johnson.
“I was happy that the shot went in, but then I saw it on the screen and had a feeling that Josef was somewhere over there…” Gressel said. “I saw it on the screen and was like, ‘Yeah, that’s offsides,’.”
Five Stripes coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino was less accepting of the call.
“I think it was a goal,” Martino said through a translator. “He could’ve been offsides, but I don’t think if there were three or four goalies in the net that they would’ve stopped it. So, I don’t think there were any incidents on the play.”
Atlanta bounced back quickly in the second half and took the lead thanks to another creation from Almirón.
In the 57th minute, Almirón picked up his dribble and sprinted towards the end line before lofting the ball up over a gaggle of NYCFC defenders. Chris McCann timed his leap perfectly and met the ball with his noggin, knocking it into the back of the net for the Five Stripes’ second score of the game.
It marked the first MLS goal for the 30-year-old Irishman. He scored 36 goals over his professional career in England.
“Everybody was piling into the box,” McCann said. “Miguel is a clever player sometimes… He picked out a beautiful pass and he checked my run and picked me out and it went in. It was great to get the first goal obviously. It’s been a long time coming.”
The game also marked the MLS regular season debut of 19-year-old Ezequiel Barco, who missed Atlanta’s first five games due to a quad injury. Barco, who Atlanta paid the highest transfer fee in MLS history to get, entered the game for Kevin Kratz in the 69th minute.
The Argentinian displayed quick feet, crisp passes and an immediate chemistry with Almirón, but his play wouldn’t lead to a decisive goal for the Five Stripes.
“I was happy to get the debut, but I was disappointed with the result,” Barco said through a translator. “The response from the crowd when I came in was great. It’s something beautiful here.
“This was a tough game to come back to. (MLS) is a tough league, a really good league, but I’m just disappointed we couldn’t get the result.”
— Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch) April 16, 2018