Appreciating Martinez in Atlanta United’s 4-1 win

The speed. The swagger. The ruthlessness.

For the first time this young MLS season, Atlanta United looked like last year's playoff team in Saturday's 4-1 win against Vancouver in front of 45,003 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Five Stripes, with a hat trick from Josef Martinez, punished the Whitecaps, who were reduced to 10 men following a red card in the 13th minute, with a flurry of goals in the game’s second half for their second consecutive win.

“We were more ruthless,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said. “We really wanted to get higher up the field. We thought, in the first half, that we were dropping off a little bit too much (and) giving them a little bit too much time to have possession. We wanted to get after them a little bit, play higher up the field, put them under pressure more and when we were able to do that, we were able to cause the own goal and get the third (goal) right away.”

Here are five observations from the game.

1. The red card: The game turned in the 13th minute during a free kick in Vancouver's half of the field. As the players were fighting for position, Vancouver's Kendall Waston, who is 6-foot-5, clearly hit Atlanta United's Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who is 6-1, in the jaw with his right elbow.

Gonzalez Pirez hit the turf while players were jumping over or avoiding him until the ball went out of play.

Referee Ismail Elfath put his hand to his ear, a signal that the VAR officials were talking to him, before signaling that he wanted to take a second look at what happened on the monitor located behind the touchline.

After more than four minutes of watching the play on the monitor, Elfath first signaled that the play resulted in a penalty kick for Atlanta United. Waston turned to Gonzalez Pirez, who was standing on the sideline, and began clapping. Waston didn’t see Elfath then pull out a red card. Once Waston realized that he had been ejected, he stormed toward Elfath. His teammates eventually restrained him, but not before Waston pushed a few of them out of the way.

2. Was the penalty kick and red card the correct call?: The answer is in the eye of the beholder.

Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said the call was correct.

Vancouver manager Carl Robinson said it made “his blood boil.”

“Shocking. Absolutely shocking,” Robinson said. “A shocking decision. For us to play down, or play 11 men against 11 in Atlanta is very difficult, we knew that. We had a game plan going into the game that was totally affected after five minutes. I think it took five minutes for the referees to try and overturn the decision. I get told that it has to be clear and obvious, clearly, it wasn’t. I agree with what most people have told me after the game and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It had a major impact on the game and unfortunately then it was an uphill battle for us, and we weren’t good enough to play 10 men against 11.”

A few things about Robinson’s claim: It could have been Gonzalez Pirez behind Waston. It could have been goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Either way, Waston clearly swung his elbow behind him and in the direction of whoever was pushing him hip to hip. That is considered violent conduct and is a red card offense. Waston knew someone was there because the two opponents were pushing on each other.

3. The impact: With Waston's ejection, which resulted in Martinez converting the penalty for his first goal, Vancouver not only trailed 1-0 but was also without its tallest player for set pieces, which was going to be their best chance to at least scratch out a draw. Waston scored two goals, both on set pieces, in the Whitecaps' 3-1 win against Atlanta United last season at BC Place.

“Decisive,” Martino said. “Any game where there is a player that gets sent off that early, and furthermore, on the same play we have a chance to score a goal, that is a before and after for the game.”

It also led to Robinson deciding to switch his three-man backline to a four-man backline by moving speedster Alphonso Davies. That decision took away the Whitecaps’ other best chance to equalize. Davies went on a few runs on offense, but his ability to influence the game was reduced by Robinson’s decision to push him further down the field.

Conversely, it gave Atlanta United’s Julian Gressel plenty of space down his right side and he took advantage to pump in cross after cross in the first half.

Though no Atlanta United players could get to them, one was finally turned into the goal by Vancouver’s Aaron Maund to give the Five Stripes a 2-0 lead in the 58th minute.

4. Appreciating Martinez: Martinez then finished the scoring with a long-range effort in the 60th minute and a header in which he appeared to float in the 88th minute on a cross from Andrew Carleton.

Martinez has played just 23 MLS games – 23 – but is one hat trick away from tying the league record of five held by Landon Donovan, Stern John and Diego Serna. It took Donovan 340 appearances, John 55 and Serna 124.

Atlanta United will next play at Minnesota, which is where Martinez notched his first hat trick in last year’s 6-1 win in the snow and started his pace of scoring at least three goals once every four games.

Martinez said when he doesn’t score he gets annoyed. When the team doesn’t win, he gets annoyed. Martinez said he gets that way because not only is playing his passion, but it’s also his job. When he isn’t scoring, he’s not doing what he’s paid to do.

“He’s really good at scoring goals,” Parkhurst said. “He’s got that mentality. He’s just ruthless in front of the net. He just loves to score goals. He gets upset in trainings and games (and in) little games in training (where) we’re just goofing around, he gets upset if he doesn’t score goals. It’s just what he does. It’s what he loves to do and you can see it out there.”

Martinez said coming to a new league, he wasn’t sure what to expect after leaving Italy and Torino, where he admits he didn’t have as much success.

Martino said he knew that Martinez would have success in MLS.

“Yes, honestly I thought he would be a decisive player for us,” Martino said. “Because I saw him play with Venezuela, played against him, and saw him play in Copa America. He was a decisive player in Copa America and whenever he played in Venezuela. So to be honest, I have to say that I thought he would be that for us as well.”

5. Carleton's play:  To the delight of many Atlanta United supporters, 17-year-old Andrew Carleton came on in the 78th minute in place of striker Hector Villalba. The 12-plus minutes were Carleton's longest run of play in MLS. He had two previous appearances with the team totaling five minutes.

The Powder Springs native assisted on Martinez’s goal with a beautiful cross to the back post in the 88th minute. It was Carleton’s first assist as a pro in an MLS game and he said it was the second most-important moment in his soccer career. Not only was Carleton’s family there for the moment, but his grandfather, who lives in Ellijay, attended his first game.

Carleton said it was his second-favorite soccer memory, just behind an assist in a game against Paraguay in the U17 World Cup.

Carleton said he felt a sense of urgency because few minutes earlier he tried to take on two Vancouver players in the penalty box, lost the ball and the resulting counter-attack led to the Whitecaps’ goal.

“I was like, ‘I got to go get this back real quick,’” Carleton said.

Carleton apologized to Martino in the locker room. Martino said he told Carleton he was crazy.

“Nobody can say that Carleton was guilty or responsible for that goal because he is losing the ball in the opposing 18, it’s not like he is losing the ball at midfield,” Martino said. “That is not the reason they scored on us. They scored because we were marking poorly and the ball still had to go 90 meters from where he lost the ball.”

Martinez said that Carleton needs to continue playing his style to earn more minutes with the first team.

“If he’s giving me assists, I’m happy for him,” Martinez said. “He’s a player who’s doing things well. He’s got a lot of room to grow but he just has to keep doing things the way he (has been). With his head in the right spot (as he is) working for his place on the team, which I think he is earning.”