Atlanta United defender Franco Escobar and fans celebrate his goal for a 2-0 lead over the New York Red Bulls during the second half in their Eastern Conference finals MLS soccer game on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Atlanta United’s Escobar star of win over Red Bulls

Atlanta United’s Franco Escobar thinks of himself as a centerback.

But with a goal and an assist as a wingback in Sunday’s 3-0 win over New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals of the MLS playoffs, the Argentine may be fulfilling the potential that Gerardo Martino saw when he was acquired before the season from Newell’s Old Boys.

“This is the player we wanted to sign for our team, the Franco we’ve seen in the last five or six games,” Martino said. “He’s adapted very well to the position. He’s able to get forward, he’s versatile. He’s a physical player, and he’s scored two goals now in the last six or seven games for us that have been very important.”

Escobar seems like one of those teammates that everyone can like. He’s quiet. He laughs at himself and with others, even when the joke is on him such as when his teammates hid his clothes after Sunday’s game.

But his play has been as serious as he is unassuming.

Looking like the fastest player on the field and outmuscling whoever the Red Bulls tried to put in front of him, Escobar was the man of the match on Sunday.

Though right-footed, his goal once again came with his left foot, a hard shot into the corner from assists by Miguel Almiron and Julian Gressel to give Atlanta United a 2-0 lead.

“I was a bit surprised that the ball go through to me, but I have to be there just in case,” he said. “The cross from Julian (Gressel) got by Josef (Martinez), and I was in the right place.”

His assist on Hector Villalba’s goal was a simple pass that he downplayed.

“I don’t think it was an assist,” he said. “I just gave the ball to Tito (Villalba), and he turned and scored a golazo (amazing goal) with his left foot. Luckily, he did score that goal, and it gives us a bit more of an advantage heading to New York.”

Atlanta United travels to play at New York Red Bulls in the second leg of the series Thursday.j

It took a while for Escobar to adjust to his new team and league. As soon as he started to gain confidence, he would suffer an injury that would knock him out for games. Then, he was simply no longer picked for 18s by Martino.

But Escobar’s play in the past few games has been impressive for Atlanta United. Used as a centerback or wingback, he has caused matchup problems for opponents because of his speed and size. He said he wasn’t always fast, but he knew that was an area in which he can improve so he worked hard in the gym. Now, he may be as fast as Almiron and Villalba, considered two of the fastest players in the MLS.

Watching him fly down up and down the right wing on Sunday impressed his teammates.

“That’s not the Franco I’ve met,” Josef Martinez said. “But I think he deserves all of it for what he’s doing for us. He’s played very well in the last few games.”

“Hopefully, that means something good,” Escobar replied.

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