Thanks to a 1-0 victory over Colorado on Saturday, Atlanta United enters the second half of the MLS season in the sixth and final place in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
A goal from Josef Martinez on an assist from Brandon Vazquez lifted Atlanta United to the win at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium. Decatur’s Alec Kann preserved the victory with a save of a point-blank header in the game’s final seconds. It was Atlanta United’s third shutout this season and first since March 31 at Seattle.
“It was a big relief to close out the game,” captain Michael Parkhurst said.
Atlanta United finishes the first half of the season with a 7-7-3 record, including 5-2-0 at home. It will play at Miami in the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday before traveling to Columbus next Saturday. The team will have 10 league games at home in the season’s second half. It will play seven on the road.
The team has 24 points and is two points away from tying Orlando City for fourth, but one point above New York Red Bulls in seventh. Toronto leads the Eastern Conference with 35 points.
Here are five thoughts on the game:
The lineup and one new face. Martino made two changes to the starting lineup. The familiar face was Martinez, who made his first start in an MLS game since suffering a thigh injury while playing for Venezuela in March. The second change was Anton Walkes in at right fullback in place of Tyrone Mears. It was Walkes’ first start in an MLS game and second this year. The loanee from Tottenham Hotspur previously started at centerhalf in the U.S. Open Cup win against Charleston.
Walkes didn’t find out that he was going to play until the technical talk before the game. Walkes said it has been years since he has played a position that required him to get up and down the field as much as did on Saturday.
“I think he played well, he showed character tonight,” Martino said.
Martino jokingly said he started Walkes over Mears and Mark Bloom because a reporter said on Thursday that the team lacked the height to deal with set pieces and crosses. A lack of height is something that Martino and the players have mentioned several times this season and was a factor in Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to D.C. United, as well as the 3-1 loss to Vancouver.
Martino said he started Walkes because of the need to rotate players ahead of Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup. Teams are allowed to name no more than five international players on their gameday rosters. Though Mears is from England, he doesn’t count as an international because he has a visa. Walkes does count. Captain Michael Parkhurst said he presumes that many of the players that started against Colorado will be in the lineup at Miami. That presumption would include international players Martinez, Almiron, Hector Villalba, Yamil Asad and possibly Carlos Carmona or Leandro Gonzalez Pirez.
The dull first half. It may have been a combination of the stifling heat and humidity that forced a hydration break at 30 minutes, or the fact that Atlanta United was playing its fifth game in 15 days, but the team lacked its usual home spark in the first half. Almiron and Martinez, the team’s leading scorers, were hardly involved in the offense. Almiron’s 31 touches were tied for second-fewest on the team, and Martinez’s nine were the fewest. Martinez said the heat and humidity were factors. Jeff Larentowicz said he was surprised a hydration break was used because the game was at night, but didn’t question the decision.
The players were instructed at halftime to increase the tempo, but stay patient with the belief that the result would be a one-goal game. They were also told to keep their shape to deter the effectiveness of counter-attacks.
Atlanta United controlled the second half with 10 shots, six on target, in the second half, to Colorado’s three and one.
Colorado’s lineup. The Rapids, winless in six road games with just two goals scored, rolled out an interesting lineup that included three players in defense who had six or less starts this season with one, Dennis Castillo, making his first appearance. Atlanta United entered the league leading in goals scored (32).
Still, Colorado started several skilled players on offense who did test Atlanta United a few times during the game, particularly twice in the first half and the corner kick in the final seconds. The shot was hit by Bismark Adjel-Boateng.
“I knew they were going to send everyone into the box except for (Tim ) Howard,” Kann said. “I was just trying to keep myself between the ball and the goal.”
Kann said the shot hit him in the forearms.
The break through. Atlanta United started coming closer and closer to scoring in the second half. Martinez tried a bicycle kick from eight yards out that was stopped by a strong left hand from a diving Tim Howard around the 65th minute. Martinez said that type of save is why Howard is the first choice as the U.S. men’s national team goalkeeper.
“Whenever Josef is on the field we have expectations of him scoring,” Martino said. “He has skills inside the box that few forwards have. It’s a welcome return to the team.”
The Five Stripes broke through in the 67th minute when Vazquez, inserted as a sub just a few minutes previously, cut inside and passed to Martinez. He faked a shot with his right foot, spun and hit a low shot with his left foot into the bottom right corner. It was Martinez’s seventh goal this season for and Vazquez’s first assist.
“He’s come on a few times now in that right wing position,” Martino said of Vazquez. “We’ve noticed he’s growing.”
Atlanta United just missed making it 2-0 in the 85th minute when a cross from Almiron was just missed by a diving Vazquez.
“Coming in with fresh legs is a big help for them,” Vazquez said.
Only goal. The Five Stripes broke through in the 67th minute when Vazquez, inserted as a sub just a few minutes previously, cut inside and passed to Martinez. He faked a shot with his right foot, spun and hit a low shot with his left foot into the bottom right corner. It was Martinez’s seventh goal this season for and Vazquez’s first assist.