Franco Escobar’s first goal this season, two late ones from Josef Martinez, and a series of saves by Brad Guzan were enough to carry Atlanta United to a 3-0 victory over Minnesota on Wednesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The win snapped Atlanta United’s (7-5-2) two-game losing streak. The team moved to fourth place in the East with 23 points. It trails first-place D.C. United by three points but has played one less game. Atlanta United will host Chicago on Saturday in the finale of a stretch of eight games in 28 days. It has earned 15 of a possible 21 points in that stretch.
Manager Frank De Boer was pleased with the players’ hustle throughout, pointing out a long sprint made by Eric Remedi late in the game, Josef Martinez at another point filling space left by Remedi, and the players’ willingness to work for each other.
“This is what we are capable of,” de Boer said he told the players after the game.
Wednesday’s announced attendance of 42,703 pushed Atlanta United past 2 million in tickets sold and distributed for the team’s 38 MLS, playoff, Open Cup and Champions League games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The pre-game included a tribute to Jeff Larentowicz, who made his 400th appearance during the MLS regular season in the team’s previous home game against Orlando on May 12. Messages of congratulations from Larentowicz’s former teammates played on the halo board and team president Darren Eales presented the player and his family with a large framed jersey with his last name and 400 on the back.
De Boer changed the starting lineup for Wednesday’s game. Instead of playing underneath Josef Martinez, Pity Martinez played on the right. Julian Gressel moved from the right into the center. Dion Pereira earned his second consecutive start on the left of the midfield with Michael Parkhurst starting at left fullback.
De Boer said he made the change because he liked Gressel’s work rate in the middle better, particularly against Ozzie Alonso, and Pity Martinez’s ability to take advantage of the space that they assumed would be on the right. Additionally, Remedi moved up and helped Gressel. Gressel finished with four shots, two on target and three tackles. Pity Martinez had two shots. Minnesota created just six chances in the game.
“I thought we got Pity on the ball in good spots and I thought I got on the ball in good spots,” Gressel said. “I thought it worked pretty good.”
After dominating possession while keeping the ball in Minnesota’s third, Atlanta United’s work paid off in the 23rd minute with Escobar’s first goal this season. It was a simple shot because the ball came right to him about 16 yards from the goal after centerback Ike Opara failed to clear a pass by Gressel. Gressel said the space was there for Escobar because the rebuilt midfield created an overload on the left that pulled Minnesota’s defense to that side.
Pity Martinez was denied by Minnesota goalkeeper Vito Mannone in the 51st minute after he created space for a left-footed shoot from 12 yards. The play started with Josef Martinez working back to be an outlet to break Minnesota’s pressure. He knocked the ball down to Pereira, who dribbled about 30 yards before hitting a cross to Pity Martinez.
Josef Martinez put a shot just past the post following a cross by Pereira, who time after time got the better of his man.
Atlanta United kept its lead despite a mad scramble in front of the goal in the 74th minute. It started with Miles Robinson almost putting in an own goal, only for Guzan to make a diving save. It continued with Guzan keeping the ball from crossing the line with several flapping efforts as it spun on the post. Guzan was finally about to pounce on the ball. The play was reviewed and referee Alex Chilowicz said the ball didn’t completely break the plane of the goal line. Guzan was credited with three saves during the sequence.
Guzan said he thought the ball hit the hand of a Minnesota player at the beginning of the sequence, which is why Atlanta United stopped for a split-second.
“Then it was just a ping-pong ball around the 6-yard box, just trying to keep it out of the goal,” Guzan said.
Josef Martinez scored his team-leading seventh goal this season with a right-footed rocket in the first minute of stoppage time. Martinez was set loose against Alonso and Opara and beat them both to slam a shot from 7 yards.
Martinez scored another three minutes later when he was put in one-on-one against Mannone. Guzan was given the assist.
Martinez said the beginning of the game was tough because he couldn’t take advantage of his chances. The last goal made things that much sweeter because he said the ball came right to him.
“It was like a glass of rum that I didn’t have to order,” he said.
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