Tired because it was playing its fourth game in 14 days, so beaten up its bench featured just five players, and slightly frustrated with recent results, Atlanta United got just what it needed on Wednesday in a 5-0 victory over Houston at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Not only was Houston reduced to 10 men following an early red card, but Atlanta United didn’t need to work very hard from that point forward with two goals from Josef Martinez, and one each from Darlington Nagbe, Brandon Vazquez and Julian Gressel enough to give the team its second win in its past six games in front of an announced attendance of 42,557.
“We were really into it from the first second the game started,” manager Frank de Boer said. “It continued when we play against 10. It continued every time. We were good in shape, organized. I gave them a compliment. How they played, even after 3 or 4-0, they did what we asked them to do and you see they created a lot of chances.”
With the victory, Atlanta United (10-8-3) jumped into second place in the East with 33 points, three less than Philadelphia and with a game in hand. It was its ninth shutout this season.
Atlanta United will host D.C. United on Sunday.
With no healthy fullbacks, de Boer broke out a 3-5-2 formation that didn’t include Eric Remedi or Pity Martinez. Instead, he selected goalkeeper Brad Guzan, centerbacks Miles Robinson, Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, wingbacks Gressel and Dion Pereira, defensive midfielders Jeff Larentowicz and Nagbe, attacking midfielder Emerson Hyndman, and strikers Vazquez and Josef Martinez. The depleted team dressed just five players on the bench instead of seven. One of the players on the bench was Mo Adams, whose trade was announced by the club on Wednesday. One wasn’t Andrew Carleton, who trained on Tuesday. De Boer said Carleton picked up an injury during Tuesday’s training session.
Houston did Atlanta United two favors though. First, Wilmer Cabrera elected not to start Mauro Manotas and Romell Quioto, taking away some of the speed that could have threatened Atlanta United’s flanks.
Then, six minutes into the game, Alberth Elis received a yellow after fouling Gonzalez Pirez and then kicking away the ball in dissent when a foul was called. Then, Elis bumped referee Chris Penso, resulting in a straight red and subsequent ejection.
The sequence happened after Elis beat Parkhurst to the end line and turned in a cross that eluded Guzan and rolled across Atlanta United’s open goal. The ball bounced off Nagbe and rolled out of bounds just to the outside of the post.
Atlanta United took advantage with a Nagbe goal in the 27th minute. It was his first goal for Atlanta United since joining the team before the 2018 season. Gressel earned his fourth assist and Hyndman earned his first on a nice combination of passes that moved the ball from the middle of the pitch to the right, where Gressel had been pumping in crosses. The assist came on a pass to the penalty spot, where Nagbe had made a run and was waiting to one-time the ball. It was Nagbe’s first goal since Aug. 23, 2017.
“A lot of guys made runs into the box that pulled the defense back, Julian played it back and it was just on for a one-time finish,” Nagbe said.
Atlanta United made it 2-0 two minutes later when a pass from Pereira was deflected to an open Vazquez, who headed it in for his second goal in league play this season. Pereira spun away from one defender to put in his cross from just a few yards away. The defenders followed Martinez’s run to the front post.
“I think we all imagined this win since before the start,” Vazquez said. “We came out with the right intensity. Fortunately, the game got easier with the red. I think we kept that mentality and intensity up and we got the win that way.”
Josef Martinez made it 3-0 in the 60th minute with a headed goal off another assist by Gressel, who chipped a pass across the penalty box to 6 yards from goal. It was the sixth consecutive league game in which Martinez has scored and ensured that he has scored against every team in MLS.
Martinez scored his second in the 80th minute with a shot into the roof of the net after spinning around Houston goalkeeper Tyler Deric and centerback Kevin Garcia. Martinez has 15 goals this season.
Gressel finished the scoring in the 88th minute with a right-footed shot from 12 yards into the lower left corner.
“We all know we are a good team, we all know come playoff time we will be there,” Nagbe said. “The point is having good performances to get into the playoffs and make the playoffs and today we took a step in that right direction.”
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