Atlanta United took an important step toward the Supporters’ Shield with its 2-1 win against New England on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Goals by George Bello and Julian Gressel were enough to increase Atlanta United’s MLS-leading points total to 66 in front of an announced crowd of 45,122. The Five Stripes lead New York Red Bulls, who play late Saturday night, by four points in the race for the Shield.
However, the win came with a loss because Miguel Almiron left the game in the 30th minute with what appeared to be a left hamstring injury. The team described it at halftime only as a left leg injury. Almiron arguably is Atlanta United’s best player with 12 goals and 14 assists this season. Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said that Almiron is undergoing tests, but the injury appears to be a muscular and that it seems he will miss the final two games.
“I think the reaction of the team was good, I think we played solid in the first half,” Martino said. “I think Miguel’s injury affected the team a little bit. It also affected the fans. We kind of lost a little bit of rhythm.”
With the win, Atlanta United needs a combination of six points – points that the Five Stripes either take in their next two games or the New York Red Bulls drop in their final three games -- to win the Shield.
Within those six points, Atlanta United needs one or for Red Bulls to drop one for the Five Stripes to clinch a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.
Determined to show that it learned lessons from last week’s 2-0 thumping by the New York Red Bulls, Atlanta United came out playing quickly and passionately. It eschewed playing out of the back against New England’s press, a tactic that it stuck to against New York, and instead played long diagonals into space. Martino said that because the Revs’ forwards didn’t press as hard as New York’s, Atlanta United had the time to pick those passes.
Almiron, who had trouble finding spots last week, got behind New England’s defense in the first minute to put in a cross that had to be cleared away before Josef Martinez could tap it in.
Bello, making his second start, also got behind the Revs on the left and put in a cross that Martinez did put in the goal, but the score was waved away because Bello was flagged for being offside.
Those two attempts were two more than the Atlanta United could muster in most of the first half of last week’s game.
Atlanta United broke through in the 17th minute with Bello lashing a left-footed shot low and to Brad Knighton’s near post. It was the 16-year-old’s first goal. With the goal, Bello became the sixth-youngest player in MLS history to score. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was credited with an assist, his second this season.
“I don’t think it’s settled down in me yet,” Bello said. “In a few hours I’ll probably be going crazy. To be able to help the team progress in the playoffs and positioning is even greater.”
Atlanta United increased its lead to 2-0 in the 52nd minute on a goal by Gressel. It was a right-footed shot under Knight’s right foot and into the left corner. It was Gressel’s fourth goal and Villalba’s ninth assist.
“We wanted to make sure we came out and controlled the game, to make sure there would only be one winner,” Gressel said.
New England’s Juan Agudelo scored in the 90th minute.
After Almiron left the game, Martinez dropped deeper to initiate plays, with Barco effectively playing off him.
“We’ve done it all year,” captain Michael Parkhurst said. “After a bad performance, we’ve always come back, always had a good performance. Today was no different. We knew it was a big one. Three games left. We control our own destiny. We take nine points. We win our first trophy. So, step one done.”
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