Franco Escobar’s goal helped Atlanta United defeat New England 1-0 on Saturday in the first round of the playoffs, keeping alive the team’s pursuit of its second consecutive MLS Cup.
Atlanta United will host in the second round at 8 p.m. Thursday the winner of Sunday’s game between the New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia in Chester, Pa.
The goal in the 70th minute came after good work by Ezequiel Barco and a tactical change by manager Frank de Boer in front of an announced attendance of 66,114 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“This is the first of four,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “It’s good, but we are not here to just win one. We are here to win a trophy.”
Saturday’s performance was reminiscent of many of Atlanta United’s games in last year’s playoffs: disciplined defense and opportunistic offense. New England had more shots on goal (6-2) when Atlanta United scored the decider, but Guzan was equal each time. He finished with six saves of 14 shots.
Atlanta United remains unbeaten at home in tournament games this season, improving to 7-0.
“I think we have a team that really wants to play in those type of games,” de Boer said. “If you see Franco (Escobar) today, it was no coincidence that he scored the goal.”
The win came at a cost because team captain Michael Parkhurst sustained a dislocated left shoulder in stoppage time after a collision with a New England player.
De Boer selected 10 of the 11 players who started the 3-1 win against New England on Oct. 6. The only change was Parkhurst in place of the injured Miles Robinson. The remaining 10: Guzan, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Escobar as the other centerbacks, Julian Gressel and Justin Meram as the wingbacks, Jeff Larentowicz and Darlington Nagbe as the defensive midfielders, Emerson Hyndman as the attacking midfielder and Ezequiel Barco and Josef Martinez as the strikers. Nagbe, Martinez and Gressel were the scorers in that 3-1 win.
Without Robinson, whose speed and athletic ability often cleaned up mistakes when Atlanta United went aggressively forward, the team played conservatively in the opening minutes.
Gressel and Meram hung back to help deal with Cristian Penilla, who gave the team many problems in the previous meeting, Gustavo Bou and Carles Gil. De Boer said he was trying to help avoid one-on-one situations against Atlanta United’s three centerbacks.
“You know it’s only one game so you don’t want to give that space directly away,” de Boer said.
Still, picking moments to attack, Atlanta United twice came close in the first 12 minutes. First, Martinez missed from a tight angle after being put through by Larentowicz, who won the ball with a touch tackle about 35 yards from goal. Nagbe forced a save with a low, hard shot a few minutes. Barco, put through by Martinez, put a left-footed shot over the crossbar. Martinez later missed a short-range shot after a well-worked corner-kick routine left him open to receive the ball at the back post.
New England started to gain control with Guzan forced into two tough saves, the second a diving effort to his left after Gonzalez Pirez misread an attempted header at midfield, which led to a Revolution attack.
There was a controversial moment near the end of the half when it appeared that New England goalkeeper Matt Turner made contact with Martinez’s right calf and foot as both were trying to reach the ball. Referee Kevin Stott gave Martinez a yellow card for simulation.
“I messed it up,” Martinez said. “I had few chances. That was the one that I had to be at 100 percent, and I wasn’t. You have to thank him also because that’s why he’s there as a goalkeeper. The next time I won’t mess it up again.”
New England dominated the opening minutes of the second half until Meram got down the left wing and put in a cross. Barco hit an awkward left-footed shot that Turner saved low to his right.
“At halftime, I told my team that if we continue to control the match, we will create more chances, and then, we had to make one count,” de Boer said. “I also told them if we scored one, then they would have to come more. At the 50-minute mark, I didn’t think we had that same control, so I changed the system.”
De Boer elected in the 65th minute to make a formation change to try to spark his team. Hector Villalba came on for Meram and Flo Pogba for Hyndman. With those changes came a switch to a 4-4-1-1 or 4-3-3 formation, which Atlanta United used for a stretch earlier this season.
“That’s twice in two weeks against them where we’ve switched to a four,” Larentowicz said. “It opens spaces up and gets guys higher up the field attacking. It makes them step back a bit.”
The moves worked.
After a good spell of attacking, Atlanta United broke through when Barco put Escobar into space on a hard run from right back toward the end line. Escobar roofed his shot from a tight angle in the 70th minute.
“I work just as hard as any other game and somehow destiny is for these matches,” he said. “I tend to work and luck is on my side for these matches.”
Of Escobar’s five goals in the past two season, three have come in the playoffs.
“Franco seems to pop up in weird moments at weird times,” Guzan said. “It was a great finish. I’m not asking any questions. We will take it and move on.”
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