Photo: AJ Reynolds/Atlanta United
Photo: AJ Reynolds/Atlanta United

Atlanta United finishes in second in MLS East, gets rematch with New England in playoffs

Goals from Darlington Nagbe, Josef Martinez and Julian Gressel lifted Atlanta United to a 3-1 victory over New England Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on the final day of the MLS regular season. 

The victory means Atlanta United (18-12-4) finished the regular season with 58 points, clinched second place in the Eastern Conference and set up a showdown with the Revs in the first round of the playoffs on Oct. 19 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

It wasn’t a comfortable win. Atlanta United’s defense was shaky throughout the first half, but the attack seemed to be more in sync than in previous games with numerous chances created, punctuated by the first two goals, each of which were assisted by Gressel. He then scored the third. But Atlanta United dominated the second half with nine chances created to New England’ six.

“The way we played, I was quite satisfied,”  Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer. “The first half we started quite well. The only thing we didn’t do was score the second or third.”

» PLAYER RATINGS: Atlanta United 3, New England 1

Martinez, whose goal was followed by a kneel-down celebration in front of the retiring captain Michael Parkhurst, finished the regular season with 27 goals, losing the Golden Boot and single-season scoring record of 31 he set last year to LAFC’s Carlos Vela, who finished the season with 34 after scoring a hat-trick against Colorado on Sunday. Parkhurst entered the game in the 79th minute, with the chant “Michael Parkhurst” echoing around the stadium. Martinez said he told Parkhurst before the game that he was going to honor him.

“Of course it feels nice,” Parkhurst said. “I can feel the love from the teammates, the respect. They wanted to play well today to make sure I got on the field.”

Brad Guzan and D.C. United’s Bill Hamid tied for the league lead in clean sheets (14). 

De Boer made a couple of interesting choices with the starting 11. First, Josef Martinez decided that he was healthy enough to start. He missed the previous two games because of injuries to his ankle and knee. Second, de Boer benched Pity Martinez in place of Ezequiel Barco because he said Barco needed to improve his game fitness. It was the first time Martinez hadn’t started since July 21 against D.C. United, a streak of 11 consecutive league games. It was Barco’s first league start since Aug. 23 at Orlando. The rest of the lineup: Guzan in goal with Franco Escobar, Miles Robinson and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez as the centerbacks. Jeff Larentowicz made his second consecutive start at defensive midfielder with Nagbe. Gressel and Justin Meram were the wingbacks with Emerson Hyndman, Barco and Josef Martinez up front. 

Atlanta United needed less than four minutes to grab a 1-0 lead when Gressel’s cross found Nagbe on a late run into the box. His one-timed shot casually rolled into the lower left corner. It was Nagbe’s second goal and Gressel’s 11th assist this season. Josef Martinez was also given an assist, his third this season. 

It was a stunning turnaround because two minutes earlier Guzan bailed out Atlanta United’s defense when he stopped Cristian Penilla in a one-on-one. Atlanta United had tried to play New England offside, but Escobar was a step slow, which left Penilla onside and through onto Guzan, who reached behind him as Penilla dribbled past and touched the ball just enough to disrupt the effort. 

Penilla wasn’t done. He was played through after a heavy touch by Escobar and this time put a shot past Guzan, instead of trying to dribble past him, in the eighth minute to the game at 1-1. 

Unlike in some games this season, Atlanta United didn’t let the quick tying goal affect them.

Atlanta United grabbed a 2-1 lead in the 49th minute on a goal from Martinez after an unbelievable 50-yard pass from Gressel into the space between New England’s last line and goalkeeper Matt Turner. Martinez ran onto the ball, took a dribble and beat Turner. 

Gressel increased the lead to 3-1 with a right-footed shot off the left post in the 57th minute. It was his sixth goal of the season. The goal came from a spot near the right corner where it seems most of Gressel’s goals are scored.

“It felt amazing,” Gressel said. “This is bouncing nicely, I just have to have a kick here. At first, I thought it was going to bounce out. It took forever to go form one post to another side netting. It was a good strike.”

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