Atlanta United defeats Nashville but loses Josef Martinez

Atlanta United midfielder Emerson Hyndman #20 reacts after scoring a goal during the first half of the 2020 MLS season opener between Atlanta United FC and Nashville SC at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday February 29, 2020. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

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Atlanta United midfielder Emerson Hyndman #20 reacts after scoring a goal during the first half of the 2020 MLS season opener between Atlanta United FC and Nashville SC at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday February 29, 2020. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

Atlanta United defeated Nashville 2-1 on Saturday in its MLS opener but may have lost Josef Martinez to an injury.

Goals from Ezequiel Barco and Emerson Hyndman were enough to help the Five Stripes win a season-opener for the first time in four seasons. But the victory was clouded by Martinez leaving the game in the 69th minute after appearing to sustain an injury to his right leg. Centerback Franco Escobar also was forced off with an injury at halftime.

“In the end, three points in the first game is a good start,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “It’s the first step of 33 to go.”

De Boer selected the same starting 11 in the same 3-4-3 formation that defeated Motagua 2-0 in the Champions League on Tuesday. Brad Guzan started in goal with Escobar, Fernando Meza and Anton Walkes as the centerbacks. Brooks Lennon started as the right wingback with Jake Mulraney as left wingback. Eric Remedi and Hyndman were the central midfielders with Barco, Pity Martinez and Josef Martinez up front.

Befitting its opener in MLS, Nashville brought the music before the game with Judah & the Lion performing its song penned especially for the club, Chip Esten sang the national anthem and Lzzy Hale scorched the frets of her guitar. The tifo featured a famous pose done by Johnny Cash, this time with him holding the club’s crest in his right hand.

It was fun. It repped the city. It got the announced attendance of 59,069 fired up.

But there was only so much a good tune, an homage to history, and some shredding could do once the game started.

Barco faked out one defender about 35 yards from goal, ran into space with no defender picking up him up, and curled a right-footed shot from 20 yards into the lower right corner to give Atlanta United a 1-0 lead in the ninth minute. Escobar earned the assist. It was Barco’s first goal and Escobar’s first assist this season in all competitions. Escobar started the play by beating his defender one-on-one, passing the ball to Josef Martinez, receiving it back, and then passing it to Barco.

Barco said he thought about passing to Mulraney in space, but the centerbacks shuffled, which game him space to dribble and shoot.

Nashville tied it at 1 in the 28th minute on a goal by Lawrenceville native Walker Zimmerman as the result of a free kick from a questionable foul called against Mulraney. After Zimmerman and Josef Martinez battled for a header in the penalty box, Zimmerman was the first to pounce on the loose ball, putting his shot past Guzan.

“Out of nothing they score a little bit of a lucky goal,” de Boer said.

Atlanta United reclaimed its lead on a fantastic goal by Hyndman, who took the ball off his chest and volleyed it into the upper right corner. Assistant referee Kathryn Nesbitt raised her flag just before the goal because there was a presumed offside. But the ball was last played by a Nashville player to Barco, who was behind the defense, which negated the offside. Barco’s pass into the penalty box deflected off a Nashville player to Hyndman. It was his first goal in all competitions this season.

“It was the best goal I’ve ever scored ... for now,” Hyndman said.

Nashville manager Gary Smith described the second goal as a bizarre play because of the flag but said his team should have played to a whistle.

Barco said he didn’t know the flag had been raised, but noticed that players stopped when the ball came to him. The assistant referee was behind him.

De Boer was forced to make a change to start the second half with Laurence Wyke coming on for Escobar, who was limping on his right leg just before halftime. It was Wyke’s debut with the first team. He was signed to a four-day emergency contract for this game because of injuries to Miles Robinson, George Bello and Edgar Castillo. Wyke made 29 appearances with Atlanta United 2 last season in USL. Wyke spent time in Manchester United’s academy as a youth and played in college at Furman.

Josef Martinez collided with a Nashville player around the 63rd minute and immediately grabbed his right knee. He walked off the field with Atlanta United’s trainers. He returned to the field in the 66th minute before motioning that he needed to be subbed in the 68th minute and leaving in the 69th minute.

Nashville came close to tying the game in the 78th minute when Randall Leal hit the near post with a shot after getting past Wyke.

“To hang on for the last 25-30 minutes speaks volumes about our character,” Guzan said.

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