Atlanta United shuts out Philadelphia

Atlanta United played at Philadelphia on Saturday. (Atlanta United)

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Atlanta United played at Philadelphia on Saturday. (Atlanta United)

Bouncing back from its Fourth of July disappointment, Atlanta United defeated Philadelphia 2-0 on Saturday on second-half goals from Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba.

The victory moves Atlanta United (12-4-4) to a league-leading 40 points in  20 games. It will be at least five points ahead of the next-best team in the MLS Eastern Conference after Sunday’s games.

Perhaps most importantly for the team, it did what it didn’t do against Dallas on Wednesday: hold onto a lead.

“It was a big bounce-back game for us,” captain Michael Parkhurst said. “We didn’t want to lose consecutive games. This season, we’ve been able to do that. It’s a big reason we’re at the top of the table.”

Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino stuck with the same 11 that came within three minutes of defeating Dallas earlier in the week. Instead, Dallas scored two goals in the final four minutes to take a 3-2 win.

Martino said he was slightly worried about fatigue, as well as the team’s mindset following Wednesday.

“I didn’t know if we would have the energy to finish the game tonight, but we did,” he said. “I thought the team had a good mindset. Everything I have to say about the team’s mentality is positive.”

In a ragged first half, Atlanta didn’t string a lot of passes together, mostly because of turnovers, but still created a few scoring chances. Martinez put Ezequiel Barco through for one, but his pass was blocked after he tried a couple of cut-backs as Union defenders slid past. Martinez got behind the defense but goalkeeper Andre Blake came out, closed down the angle and blocked the shot.

Atlanta United’s defense also wasn’t sharp. Philadelphia uncorked 11 shots in the half, but just one was on target.

Atlanta United made a tactical adjustment at halftime to use more long passes out of the back to bypass the lines and eliminate Philadelphia’s press. Martino said he noticed that the Union’s defenders were having trouble dealing with those passes a few times in the first half.

“Not just to kick it up field but to try to find the right passes,” Martino said. “That gave us more depth.”

After minutes of pressure by Philadelphia, Atlanta United finally broke through and Miguel Almiron broke into the box. He was taken down by Blake for a penalty. Martinez scored in the 58th minute for his league-leading 18th goal and fourth against Philadelphia this season. He had a hat trick in the 3-1 win earlier this season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“Today, he was very, very good for us,” midfielder Julian Gressel said. “Not just in the box when he had a chance on the pen. He worked hard. He tracked back. I think you could tell today that he really wanted to win the game. That’s what we need from him and he did an unbelievable job today and does a good job every week.”

Atlanta United then began to seize control of the momentum, something it hadn’t had for most of the game’s first 58 minutes. Its passes were faster and crisper and the players moved with more purpose.

That effort paid off when Almiron passed to Martinez, who passed it back to Almiron on the left side of the penalty box. He found Villalba across the penalty box. His one-timed goal gave Atlanta United a 2-0 lead in the 78th minute. It was Villalba’s third goal and Almiron’s ninth assist.

With Atlanta United holding onto the lead,  Martino stood on the sidelines motioning for his players to slow the tempo of the game in the 87th minute. It was the team’s sixth shutout this season.

Gressel said it’s hard to compare the feeling of disappointment after Wednesday’s loss with the satisfaction of Saturday’s victory.

“it just feels good,” he said. “We wanted to win here. Come out after that Dallas loss and win. We said that from the beginning. We said that yesterday after training. We played well. We just had to translate it to the field. Today was a tough game. Today was a mature performance overall. We get a couple of chances, score two goals, keep a clean sheet, get out of here with three points. It’s as simple as that. But it’s a good feeling.”

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