Almiron and Kratz lift Atlanta United past Montreal

When the ball was put down 20 yards from goal, Kevin Kratz stood ready, and none of his Atlanta United teammates were going to argue.

A free kick specialist with one goal last season, Kratz took a step and whipped the ball over Montreal’s wall, past a diving goalkeeper Evan Bush and into the corner in the 78th minute.

Sixteen minutes later, he did it again, this time from 35 yards. And on that kick, Bush didn’t even bother to move. Everyone knew it was going in as the final tally in a 4-1 win Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“I’m pretty confident when it gets to free kicks,” he said. “I’m not saying that I will hit all of them in, but these two today were pretty nice. I’m pretty happy to help the team with these two goals.”

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Kratz’s goals, the second and third of his MLS career and all done with free kicks, along with two goals from Miguel Almiron extended Atlanta United’s unbeaten streak to seven games, including six wins, in front of 45,039. The team next will play at Chicago on May 5.

“It’s true that he’s a specialist,” manager Gerardo Martino said of Kratz. “I had the expectation that it would be a goal.”

Kratz came on in the 74th minute as a sub for fullback Greg Garza because Martino said he wanted the midfield to be more organized. Montreal had broken through with a few counterattacks that Martino had grown tired of seeing.

Martino said he had no idea that the free kicks would be coming, but he knew that Kratz was going to take them.

It was a conversation that Martino said he had with the team last year, making sure that the higher-profile players such as Almiron, Josef Martinez, Yamil Asad and Hector Villalba knew that Kratz has dedicated many hours of training to honing his skill at free kicks. If he wanted the kick, it was his option to decline. He said no one argued.

“Kevin is the one to take it, he is the best free kick taker on the team,” Almiron said.

Kratz said the first free kick was the easiest because it was from a spot that he often practices. His teammates call the area between 20-25 yards "Kratz Country."

Julian Gressel said he knew both were going in as soon as they left Kratz’s foot. He said he raised his arms in celebration before either hit the net.

“If he hits it right, it’s going in,” Gressel said.

Kratz’s goals were the highlight of a day that started with promise, but did feature frustration.

Saturday marked the first time this season that Atlanta United’s 18 was at full strength with the inclusion of striker Ezequiel Barco, who missed season’s first five games, midfielder/striker Villalba, who has missed the past two because of a hamstring strain, and defender Franco Escobar, who has missed the past four games because of a concussion.

That, combined with Montreal having one of the league’s worst defenses (17 goals allowed) and Atlanta United one of the league’s best offenses (17 goals), made it seem like a blowout was probable.

After dominating possession with more than 70 percent of the ball in the first 12 minutes, Montreal scored the game’s first goal when Atlanta native Chris Duvall’s cross from the end line was headed in by Saphir Taider, who ran past Darlington Nagbe and split Gressel and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez to run on to the pass and score from 6 yards away.

Gonzalez Pirez said he and Nagbe miscommunicated about who was going to take Taider.

The stadium grew quiet for a few seconds before the crowd began to cheer and encourage Atlanta United again. Kratz said that was very important.

“This is really, really good,” he said. “This helps a lot to keep pushing forward, switch on again, and go for it.”

Atlanta United appeared to tie the score in the 32nd minute when Jeff Larentowicz tapped in a rebound following a free kick by Barco that was headed by Martinez. However, Martinez was offside, which negated the goal.

Atlanta United came close again just before halftime when Chris McCann’s header went over the crossbar.

Martino did something to start the second half that he has rarely done: use one of his three subs. He took off Larentowicz, who wasn’t needed because Montreal rarely attacked, and put on Villalba.

The move didn’t help the Five Stripes crack Montreal’s resolute defense. For 20 minutes, Atlanta United poked and prodded but couldn’t break through.

Finally, McCann ventured forward and his headed shot bounced off Duvall’s arm, resulting in a penalty kick for Atlanta United. Almiron converted the opportunity to tie the score at 1-1 in the 70th minute. Bush guessed correctly and got a hand on it, but the shot slid underneath him. It was Almiron’s fifth goal this season.

Atlanta United took a 2-1 lead on Kratz’s first free kick.

Almiron followed with another goal, this time a toe-poke from 18 yards, in the 84th minute. Martinez was credited with an assist.

Kratz struck again to finish the scoring.

“They know when there’s a free kick in a good position that they can rely on me,” Kratz said.