Goals from Josef Martinez, Franco Escobar and Hector Villalba pushed Atlanta United to a 3-0 victory over New York Red Bulls on Sunday in the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference finals at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Five Stripes will try to at least defend those goals in the second leg in Harrison, N.J. on Thursday.
The three goals are especially important because they give Atlanta United a huge cushion. Atlanta United can lose by no more than three goals and will still have a chance to advance and host the MLS Cup on Dec. 8. If they score an away goal, and lose by three, they will advance because of road goals.
One more game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will give Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino, as well as possibly several players, a fitting curtain call.
Sunday’s win should be a huge confidence boost for Atlanta United, which had yet to defeat Red Bulls in four previous meetings. Its most recent meeting ended with Red Bulls winning 2-0, but taught Atlanta United a lesson about the intensity it needed in important games.
“It’s obviously a big win in these circumstances in this environment at this point in the season, it’s a massive victory for us against a very, very good team,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said.
That lesson helped Atlanta United advance past NYCFC in the semifinals by an aggregate score of 4-1.
Atlanta United’s defense continued its stellar play by holding Red Bulls, which scored 62 goals during the regular season, to just one shot on goal.
“That was a change we made after the Toronto game heading into the playoffs,” Martino said. “We knew we had to be solid defensively. It was going to be very important to keep clean sheets. Played three games against top teams in the Eastern Conference and held them to one goal.”
The big news before Sunday’s game was the absence of Red Bulls fullback Kemar Lawrence, an MLS Best XI defender. He sustained a knock in training that prevented him from playing on Sunday.
Atlanta United fielded an 11 in a 3-5-2 formation similar to what it used in dispatching NYCFC in the semifinals. The only difference in the starting 11 on Sunday compared to second the leg against NYCFC was the inclusion of Jeff Larentowicz at centerback in place of Miles Robinson.
Atlanta United’s supporters tried to pump up the team with a tifo that involved the 70,016 in attendance. Each person was asked to hold up a piece of colored paper that made the inside of the stadium shimmer in red, gold or black like an Atlanta United-themed disco ball.
Once the game started, the Red Bulls didn’t press with the urgency they did in the previous meeting.
“I’m not going to say I’m surprised because they are a team that presses very well and have done all year ... but tonight they let back a little bit,” Martino said. “Instead of playing a lot of long balls, we were able to do a lot of what we’ve done this season which is to play out of the back.”
Perhaps anticipating the press, Atlanta United tried to counter with long diagonal passes to players facing one-on-one situations.
That tactic paid off in the 32nd minute when Larentowicz, given lots of space and time by Lawrence’s replacement Connor Lade, connected from the right to Martinez, who trapped the 40-yard pass with his chest, waited on goalkeeper Luis Robles to commit, and then scored to give his team a 1-0 lead. Red Bulls defender Tim Parker misjudged the pass and missed his header, which gave Martinez the space. It was Martinez’s first goal in two years against Red Bulls. The goal also set an MLS record for scoring in a season.
“If you asked he how I score, I don’t know,” Martinez said. “If I had the same chance again, I don’t know how I would handle it. The important thing now is we have the second half of the final.”
It was Larentowicz’s second career MLS Playoff assist. His first came on Nov. 1, 2009, with New England against Chicago.
Red Bulls appeared to tie the game at 1, and earn an important away goal, in the 53rd minute when Bradley Wright-Phillips turned in a headed pass from Aaron Long. However, referee Kevin Stott used the replay system to determine that Alex Muyl was offside on the goal. Muyl was in goalkeeper Brad Guzan’s line of sight on the shot. Atlanta United’s lead remained 1-0.
Red Bulls continued to threaten as they enjoyed the majority of possession, mostly in Atlanta United’s half.
Atlanta United steadily began to retake control, capitalizing in the 72nd minute on a goal from Escobar, who was the man of the match. The play started with Miguel Almiron sending Julian Gressel into space in the penalty box on the left. Gressel played a pass across the box. The ball went past Martinez and to Escobar, who slammed it into the corner. It was Escobar’s second goal with Atlanta United. Gressel and Almiron were given assists.
“I was surprised, but I have to be there just in case,” said Escobar, who is right-footed but has scored both of his goals with his left foot.
Atlanta United came close to increasing its lead to 3-0 near the 90th minute when Villalba, on for Martinez, dribbled past several Red Bulls defenders before hitting the post with his shot.
Red Bulls, which didn’t won the MLS Supporters Shield by being passive, kept pressing and twice almost scored its first goal. On the last, Guzan was there to stop a shot from 6 yards away.
Villalba got his goal in the fifth minute of stoppage time when he slammed a left-footed shot into the lower left corner. Escobar was given an assist.
“Very important to get the win at home,” Villalba said. “The three goals mean a lot. It’s not to say we are calm heading into the second game but we know we have an advantage.”
Red Bulls have been in this precarious position before. It lost the first leg of its semifinal in Columbus, 1-0. Playing the second leg at home, Red Bulls won 3-0 to advance to the finals. However, since 2003 when the league changed the playoff format, no team has overturned a 3-0 deficit in the second leg.
“The victory is deserved,” Martino said. “We will have to analyze to see if the difference is deserved. Now, we have to get ready for another battle on Thursday.”
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