March 13, 2019 Atlanta: Atlanta United midfielder Darlington Nagbe (left) gets five from Hector Villalba as time expires against Monterrey during the second half in a Concacaf Champions league quarterfinal match on Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in Atlanta. Atlanta United won the match 1-0 but failed to advance. Curtis Compton/
Photo: Compton
Photo: Compton

Atlanta United’s Villalba ready when needed

Atlanta United’s Hector Villalba came off the bench and seemed to spark Atlanta United’s offense to a 1-0 win against Monterrey in Wednesday’s Champions League quarterfinal match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Villalba, combined with a change in formation to a 4-3-3, created enough seams in Monterrey’s defense for Josef Martinez to find a hole large enough from which he got off the winning goal in the 77th minute. Atlanta United was eliminated from the competition however because of an aggregate score of 3-1.

A bright spot was Villalba, who was a key player under previous manager Gerardo Martino, but who has found minutes hard to find under new manager Frank de Boer. He has made only one start in six games, along with four appearances off the bench. Wednesday’s 25 minutes were his longest appearance as a sub this season.

“I think I have plenty of quality,” Villalba said. “All I need is a chance to play. Every time I get a chance I can show what I can do.”

Under Martino, Villalba scored 20 goals with 20 assists the previous two seasons. His speed stretched defenses. His ability to dribble into a pack of defenders and come out the other side with the ball is something that’s hard to describe as a skill, but would happen time after time.

But with his minutes restricted this season, he has yet to score or provide an assist.

Villalba said he has been doing double training sessions so that when de Boer wants to use him, he will be ready.

De Boer said Wednesday that part of the reason Villalba hasn’t played more is because of an injury to another player, Franco Escobar.

Escobar suffered a shoulder injury on the first day of preseason training. Though he returning to training last week, he hasn’t been cleared to play.

De Boer said with Escobar out, and no ready replacement at right fullback, the coaching staff made the decision in the preseason to go with a 3-4-3 formation that he didn’t feel suits Villalba’s skills. To be fair, when Martino switched from a 4-2-3-1 formation a 3-5-2 formation for the playoffs during last year’s MLS Cup, Villalba went from being a starter to a reserve.

De Boer said he has spoken with Villalba, telling him that his chances will come and to be ready to show him what he can do.

De Boer said Villalba did against Monterrey.

“He made a good entrance today,” de Boer said. “I’m very happy with his performance. This is the Tito I want to see. Surely he will make his minutes.”

Villalba’s next chance will be Sunday when the team hosts Philadelphia. De Boer said he hasn’t decided which formation the team will play.

“I think you saw tonight that when we changed the formation we started to play a little bit better,” Villalba said. “I think it suits us.”


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