An Atlanta United road trip that seemed to hold the promise of six points and a rocket trip up the MLS Eastern Conference standings, was saved from crashing and burning into the nearby Delaware River by Tyrone Mears, whose goal in the 90th minute finalized a 2-2 tie with Philadelphia on Saturday.
After falling to D.C. United 1-0 on Wednesday in a lifeless display, Atlanta United showed energy against Philadelphia. Despite playing with a man advantage for the final 38 minutes, the Five Stripes couldn’t find a tying goal until Mears hit a looping header for his first goal this season. Philadelphia’s were scored by Roland Alberg and Alejandro Bedoya in the first half. Yamil Asad scored for Atlanta United, also in the first half.
The tying goal started with a cross by Greg Garza that Philadelphia goalkeeper Andre Blake punched away. Mears ran in front of his man and headed the ball back across the goal and in.
With Saturday’s result, Atlanta United (10-8-6) moves into a tie with Montreal for the sixth and final playoff spot in the East. Montreal will play first-place Toronto on Sunday. Atlanta United will host Dallas on Sept. 10 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in its next game.
Atlanta United has become adept at scoring late in recent games. Hector Villalba had a winner at Orlando City and a tying goal against the Lions at home, and Jacob Peterson scored late to tie at Sporting KC.
In a presentation to fans before the game, Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin gave a 30-foot view of how his team would try to defend Atlanta United. The key, he said, would be staying compact, with no more than 30 yards between the back line, anchored by rookie-of-the-year candidate Jack Elliott, and striker C.J. Sapong.
Staying tight was what D.C. United did in defeating Atlanta United. Compactness robs Atlanta United’s players of space to split lines of midfielders and defenders with passes, and prevents faster players from having to the room to separate from their markers because there’s typically someone else nearby to join in a double-team.
Philadelphia grabbed a 1-0 lead in the 19th minute on a score by Ronald Alberg. A mishit ball looped to Giliano Wijnaldum around 25 yards away from goal. He hit a delicate volley over Atlanta United’s back line. Alberg ran onto the pass, trapped it with his chest, and put a shot past Brad Guzan. As he failed to do on D.C. United’s opening goal on Wednesday, Villalba didn’t move to close down the man closest to him, in this case Wijnaldum.
The Union increased its lead to 2-0 on a bicycle kick from 6 yards by Alejandro Bedoya in the 23rd minute. The play started on a corner kick by Albert that Jack Elliott flicked to the back post, where Bedoya struck it back across the goal.
Atlanta United cut the Union’s lead to 2-1 on a short blast by Yamil Asad in the 26th minute. The play started with a corner kick that ended up with Greg Garza on the left, about 20 yards up the field. He crossed it to Josef Martinez in the middle of the penalty box. He headed the ball left to Asad, who hammered it with his right foot from a tight angle. It was Asad’s third goal, Martinez’s first assist and Garza’s fourth.
The game turned in the 52nd minute when Josh Yaro received a red card after pulling down Martinez, who had a clear path to the goal. The Union were then forced to play with 10 men, but had the goal advantage.
Going for the tying goal, Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino subbed on midfielder Julian Gressel for captain and centerhalf Michael Parkhurst in the 59th minute. Martino has hinted a few times in the past few weeks that the team has been experimenting with a three-man backline in training. They did use it for the final minutes against D.C. United.
Martino then brought on midfielder Peterson for Villalba and Ty Mears, a fullback and good crosser, for Walkes in the 75th minute.
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