Hector Villalba, lion killer.
For the second consecutive game and for the second consecutive week, Villalba’s goal lifted Atlanta United and robbed Orlando City of precious points.
Villaba’s goal in the second minute of injury time Saturday helped the Five Stripes to a 1-1 tie with the Lions in the send-off for Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium.
The left-footed shot from 8 yards lacked the skill of the 25-yard missile he hit in the 86th minute of last week’s 1-0 win, but it was valuable nonetheless for Atlanta United, which picked up the point with the tie and took two points away from Orlando City, which remains outside the playoffs.
"It’s been my moment, and I’m taking advantage of it,” Villalba said.
Atlanta United’s players felt the result was deserved in a game that was chippy with four yellow cards, some pushing and shoving in the second half and lots of cursing from Atlanta United’s fans. In all, it did feel like a rivalry, even it if was only the second game ever played between the two teams.
The tie snapped Atlanta United’s four-game winning-streak as MLS heads into a short All-Star break. Atlanta United remains in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with 34 points, but there are more games Saturday. The Five Stripes (10-7-4) will resume league play at Sporting KC on Aug. 6.
Here are five observations about the game:
The tying goal. After dominating possession and getting the better chances late in the game, Atlanta United finally capitalized when Miguel Almiron and Yamil Asad connected to send Villalba through on goal. He timed the run well to stay just onside. He ran onto the ball and pushed it past Joe Bendik.
No Orlando City player picked up Almiron as he drifted from right to left down the field, and no Orlando City picked up Asad as he drifted inside from his wide position on the left. Almiron passed it to Asad, who took a touch before sending it through to Villalba, who was kept onside by Jonathan Spector.
Villalba leads Atlanta United with 10 goals, including four in the past four games. It was Asad’s team-leading 10th assist and Almiron’s ninth.
“I just made a diagonal run, but Yamil did everything,” Villalba said.
The first goal. Orlando City seemed destined to pick up the win after a moment of brilliance from Kaka, the player Atlanta United was most worried about before the game. If he lined up on the left, Atlanta United knew that Kaka could drift inside to pass or to shoot. Atlanta United tried to counter that by having Anton Walkes pick up Kaka when he was on the left and Carlos Carmona mark him when he came inside.
Kaka, the league’s highest-paid player with a salary of more than $7 million, escaped both on the the play.
He ran onto a goal kick that was knocked down by Larin, hitting the pass with the outside of his right foot in stride from 25 yards away. The ball swerved around Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and into the upper right corner of Brad Guzan’s goal. Guzan said he didn’t see it early, and that it was spinning away from him, but he possibly could have gotten at least a hand on it.
Villalba, through an interpreter, said he thought Kaka “kind of” mis-hit the shot.
The goal came just seconds after Almiron hit the post for the second time in the game, and Villalba put the second off-the-post rebound into the side netting. The ensuing goal kick was knocked down by Larin to the onrushing Kaka.
The new duo. Saturday was the debut of Orlando City’s new forward tandem of Dom Dwyer, who was acquired in a trade from Sporting KC earlier in the week, and Cyle Larin. The duo, who have 13 goals this season and 96 in their MLS careers, started as forwards in a 4-4-2 formation.
Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino had Jeff Larentowicz drop in between Pirez and captain Michael Parkhurst so that three defenders were making the two forwards. Atlanta United also focused on blocking crosses coming in from the flanks because they said Larin is particularly good at scoring off those.
The tactic worked. Neither had a shot, and Orlando City finished with six crosses.
“I thought we did a pretty good job of keeping them away from dangerous areas,” Parkhurst said.
The importance of a point. Guzan compared playing two consecutive games against Orlando City with a playoff scenario.
Because Atlanta United took four points from the two games, it would advance.
“It was important to make sure that we got something from the game, especially when you look at the table, so, for us to make sure that we didn’t leave empty-handed was a massive result for us,” Guzan said.
The tie keeps Atlanta United four points clear of Orlando City, which remains in seventh in the Eastern Conference.
Saying goodbye to Bobby Dodd Stadium. This was supposed to be Atlanta United’s first game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which is in the final stages of construction. Instead, it was the team’s finale at Grant Field, whose first concrete stands were built in 1913.
Still, Bobby Dodd Stadium, home of Grant Field, treated Atlanta United well. The team sold out nine consecutive games, with more than 415,000 in announced attendance. It has the highest average attendance for home games in MLS. Of most importance, it will leave with a record of 6-2-1.
“Anytime when you’re in a part-time situation, you’re looking forward to the full-time, but our time here, we weren’t having that scenario where it’s like, ‘We can’t wait to get out of here and into our new home’ because we enjoyed it so much,” Parkhurst said. “The atmosphere, here, was fantastic. The fans were awesome. The field was amazing. So, we really enjoyed our time here. Our record indicates that, as well. That being said, we are looking forward to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.”
Atlanta United’s first game at the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium will come Sept. 10 against Dallas. In all but two of its remaining eight home games, the team will cap attendance at 42,500.
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