Atlanta United players mob Franco Escobar after his goal for a 1-0 lead over the Chicago Fire during the first half in a MLS soccer match on Sunday, Oct 21, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Atlanta United moves three points closer to Shield

Atlanta United accomplished one goal, and did what it could to accomplish another, but will have to wait at least one more week for its first trophy.

Behind Franco Escobar’s first goal and an own-goal, Atlanta United defeated Chicago 2-1 in front of 71,812 in its final regular-season home game on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The victory clinched Atlanta United’s spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League by virtue of having the most points in the combined 2017 and ’18 seasons. However, because the New York Red Bulls defeated Philadelphia, Atlanta United still needs three points to win the Supporters’ Shield. The Five Stripes will play at Toronto next Sunday in the finale of the regular season. The Red Bulls will host Orlando. An Atlanta United win or Red Bulls’ loss will secure the team’s first trophy.

“It’s always nice to achieve goals,” Michael Parkhurst said. “We wanted to avoid a first-round game. We did that. We want to qualify for Champions League. We did that. We want to win Supporters’ Shield. That’s next. We have to go Toronto and handle our business.”

The win also moved Atlanta United to 69 points, tying the MLS single-season record set by Toronto last year and with its 21st win  broke the post-shootout record for victories.

“After this, there will be another goal to reach,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said. “There are always goals to accomplish until the final. It’s very important that we’ve accomplished a lot this season. To qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, in just the team’s second season, is a big accomplishment. We know that there are still goals to accomplish, but it’s very important what we’ve done up until this point.”

In the season’s biggest game, Martino, already without injured stars Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba, continued to mix things up by selecting a starting 11 that excluded Jeff Larentowicz for the first time this season and included Andrew Carleton, an 18-year-old Powder Springs native who made made just his second start this season. In all, Martino selected an 18 that included five players aged 22 and younger.

Martino said that Carleton and Ezequiel Barco earned the starts with their work in training this season. 

The game was sloppy at times, with neither team rarely able to build consistent attacks. But Martino’s gambles worked. 

Escobar gave Atlanta United a 1-0 lead in the ninth minute with a left-footed shot from 12 yards. He first attempted to pass to Josef Martinez, whose shot was blocked. The rebound came back to Escobar, who squeezed the shot into the opposite corner of Patrick McLain’s goal.  Escobar, who is right-footed, said it was the first goal he has scored with his left foot. He said he hit it as hard as he could, and may have gotten lucky.

“We’ve been working hard for 9-10 months now, so we are very happy,” Escobar said.

Chicago tied the game at 1-1 in the 24th minute on a goal by Michael de Leeuw, who appeared to be offside. Referee Drew Fischer did discuss the play with the Video Assistant Referee, but chose not to look at a replay.

Atlanta United took a 2-1 lead two minutes later on an own goal by Johan Kappelhof, who turned in a low, hard cross by Chris McCann.

Meanwhile, around the 68th minute of Atlanta United’s game, Kaku converted a penalty kick in Chester, Pa. to give New York a 1-0 lead in the 69th minute against the Union.

There is a lot more to be determined in the final week.

“We said before this game, whatever it takes,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “Today was a final. We had to win. We took care of business on our side. So, it goes to the final game of the season. When you win trophies it’s never easy. This is another case of rolling up our sleeves, going on the road and into a tough place like Toronto and find a way to get a win.”

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