Atlanta United is starting to roll.
Goals from Hector Villalba and Julian Gressel, both assisted by Josef Martinez, lifted Atlanta United to a 2-0 win against Toronto on Wednesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The win was Atlanta United’s (4-3-2) third consecutive and fourth in five games, coming in front of an announced attendance of 42,537. This season’s second win at home pushed Atlanta United’s point total to 14, moving it above the red line with Orlando coming to Atlanta on Sunday as the third in a stretch of eight games in 28 days.
“We feel like we are in a good rhythm,” captain Michael Parkhurst said. “The confidence is growing, which is great. There’s a good mood in the locker room. We talked about wanting to keep that, wanting to build on it and keep the spirit going.”
Though there were some nervy moments, Atlanta United looked as comfortable on Wednesday as it did in Sunday’s 3-0 victory at Sporting KC.
Atlanta United posted its third consecutive shutout. It had 19 shots, five on goal, to Toronto’s eight and zero. There were two goals called back for offside, clever passing sequences, shots off the post, hard tackles and a concentration that was missing earlier in the season when the team failed to win any of its first four games.
All of this without Ezequiel Barco, arguably the team’s best player during its winning streak, who is off with Argentina U20 national team for the World Cup.
“It starts with team spirit and belief,” manager Frank de Boer said.
De Boer didn’t make many changes in the starting 11 from the team that defeated Sporting KC. Two changes were Brek Shea for Michael Parkhurst at left fullback, and Villalba in for Barco. Villalba played on the left with Pity Martinez as the playmaker underneath Josef Martinez.
Atlanta United grabbed a 1-0 lead in the 17th minute on a goal from Villalba. The sequence started with Gressel earning a free kick from 20 yards. Pity Martinez’s effort sailed past the wall and forced a save by Alex Bono. Josef Martinez pounced on the rebound, putting it back in front of the goal where Villalba knocked it in. It was Villalba’s first goal this season and Martinez’s first assist.
Atlanta United continued to run through Toronto’s defense but missed on two more chances in the next few minutes. On the first missed chance, Martinez’s shot from 7 yards rolled just outside the post. On the second, Gressel couldn’t get his foot around a pass from Martinez.
Pushing for the tying goal, Toronto manager Greg Vanney used all three subs by the 61st minute. De Boer had yet to use any.
The moves didn’t matter.
Atlanta United thought it had the second goal when Villalba scored again in the 65th minute. However, Martinez, who assisted on the goal, was correctly flagged for offside. Atlanta United’s lead remained 1-0.
Two minutes later, Gressel made it 2-0 with a left-footed shot that was helped by a deflection off Justin Morrow. Martinez was given the assist for his first multi-assist game in MLS.
Atlanta United had another goal eliminated, also because of offside against Martinez, in the 88th minute. It was scored by Dion Pereira.
Pity Martinez was especially dangerous for Atlanta United with three shots, one on goal, and two chances created as he continues to grow into the offense. Also important, he played 90 minutes for the second time this season.
“You saw some highlights of what he can bring to the team,” de Boer said. “That’s why I let him stay in for 90 minutes. We know that very quick we have another game coming up but sometimes you have get that feeling of 90 minutes, or make a goal or an assist. He was very close to that. I think he can be satisfied with this game.”
While Atlanta United was carving up Toronto’s defense, Toronto’s offense couldn’t get on track. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez chased down Ayo Akinola to stop a one-on-one early in the half. Miles Robinson put in a key foot to break up a potential goal later in the game.
But Atlanta United focused on stopping Alejandro Pozuelo, who entered the game with four goals and six assists. He finished with no shots and a single chance created.
“We know he’s a great player, the idea was not to let him receive the ball and have time in front of goal,” defensive Eric Remedi said. “We wanted to close him down and wanted to be compact defensively.”
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