The winless streak is done.
Two goals from Ezequiel Barco and another by Marcelino Moreno lifted Atlanta United to a 3-2 win at Columbus on Saturday. The victory snapped the team’s 12-game winless streak and gave interim manager Rob Valentino his first victory in his fifth game in charge.
The win, the team’s first since May 15, keeps Atlanta United (3-6-9) within striking distance of the seventh and final playoff spot in the East and was earned despite the absence of striker Josef Martinez, who was serving a one-game suspension for a red card earned in Wednesday’s draw at Montreal.
“It’s the start of seeing some things and their hard work come together,” Valentino said. “I’m so proud of them. Their mentality, their drive, their determination to not lose that game was huge.”
The victory seemed like it had been coming since Valentino took over for the fired Gabriel Heinze. Valentino has preached attacking soccer. He has bubbled with positivity. He has challenged the players to show their integrity during the recent rough times.
It all came together on Saturday.
Barco’s first goal came from a bit of magic by George Bello. His second came from good work by Moreno, and Moreno’s goal came as a reward for his own initiative. He has scored three goals in the past three games and leads the team with six.
Atlanta United benefitted from two Columbus goals being pulled back because of offside calls.
Valentino selected Jackson Conway as the striker. The midfield was composed of Barco, Moreno, Matheus Rossetto and Santiago Sosa. The wingbacks were Bello and Ronald Hernandez. The centerbacks were Miles Robinson, named to the MLS All-Star team for the first time on Wednesday, Anton Walkes and Alan Franco, with Brad Guzan in goal.
Atlanta United took a 1-0 lead in the fifth minute on a goal by Barco. He made a 40-to-50-yard run down the middle of the field, passed it to his left to Bello, who backheeled a pass with his right foot into space behind Columbus’ defense for Barco to run onto.
“On that play, I was expecting that pass,” Barco said. “He has that quality. I continued my run and he was able to find me.”
He finished the play with a left-footed shot from seven yards between Columbus goalkeeper Eloy Room’s legs. It was Bello’s second assist this season.
“I saw him pick up the ball and what he does well, drive with it,” Bello said. “I feel like he and I have pretty good chemistry. He played me and I saw him make that run.”
Unlike two games ago, when Atlanta United scored in the first minute and then was badly outplayed by Orlando for most of the game’s remainder, the team stayed on the front foot against Columbus.
A header by Franco was cleared off the Columbus goal line by former Atlanta United player Darlington Nagbe in the 29th minute.
Atlanta United increased its lead to 2-0 on a penalty kick by Barco, who slotted the shot into the lower right corner. The penalty was won by Moreno, who was taken down in the box by Marlon Hairston in the 34th minute. Barco has scored three goals this season.
But, as has been the case the past two seasons, Atlanta United’s concentration lapsed for a split-second on a corner kick and Columbus’ Jonathan Mensah made the visitors pay with a headed goal past Guzan in the 37th minute to cut the gap to 2-1. Mensah got away from Robinson, who was partially picked by another Columbus, to score that goal.
Guzan made up for the goal with a diving save to his left of a free kick by Lucas Zelarayan, one of the best in MLS at converting set pieces, in the 43rd minute.
Columbus thought it had the equalizer in the 49th minute but Luis Diaz’s goal was ruled off because of offside.
Barco was denied in the 52nd minute when his shot toward the upper right corner was saved by Room, who dove high and to his left to push the shot with his left hand off the post.
Valentino brought on Erick Torres for Conway, who never found a place within the game, in the 62nd minute.
Atlanta United increased its lead to 3-1 on a penalty kick by Moreno, who buried his right-footed shot into the lower left corner in the 65th minute. Moreno won the penalty when he was taken by Harrison Afful. The play started with a nice cross by Hernandez that was stopped by Mensah. Moreno was the first to react to the block.
“I really wanted to take it because I’ve never scored a hat trick,” Barco said. “But Marcelino is playing well and has a lot of confidence. When they have that confidence you want to let them take it.”
Columbus thought it had scored seven minutes later from a bullet by Derrick Etienne Jr., only for it to be taken off because of offside.
Columbus cut Atlanta United’s lead to 3-2 on a penalty kick by Pedro Santos in the first minute of stoppage time. The penalty was won by Mensah, who was rashly fouled by Franco.
Atlanta United will attempt to win its second consecutive league game since doing so when it won the first two games of the 2020 season when it hosts Los Angeles FC on August 15.
“I hope it’s just the start of us rolling,” Valentino said.
Southern Fried Soccer