Goals by Araujo, Martinez keep team in MLS playoff picture
Credit: Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United
Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco #8 dribbles the ball during the match against Inter Miami at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Wednesday October 27, 2021. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)
Atlanta United strengthened its playoff probability and broke a season-long trend in Wednesday’s 2-1 win against Miami at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Second-half goals by Luiz Araujo and Josef Martinez, combined with the bruised shins of Ezequiel Barco, enabled the Five Stripes to rally from a 1-0 position for the first time this season. The victory, improving a mark that was 0-7-3 when the team allowed the first goal, pushed Atlanta United to 46 points and one place higher, sixth, in the Eastern Conference. The win came before an announced attendance of 42,536.
“I‘m very proud of that (rally), because we’ve been talking a lot about managing key moments of the game and mentality in these type of games,” manager Gonzalo Pineda said. “And I think the players put in a lot of energy.”
Following the results of Wednesday’s other games, Atlanta United is now just one point from fourth place, four points from third, and six from second. The top four teams at the end of the season will get to host at least one playoff game. Atlanta United will host Toronto on Saturday in the first of its three remaining games. Most of the other teams in the East have no more than two games remaining.
Pineda made three changes from the previous starting lineup. Martinez returned at striker, in for Erick Torres. Barco returned from red card suspension and replaced Marcelino Moreno. Franco Ibarra started for Santiago Sosa, who is dealing with a minor injury. The rest of the 11 was Brad Guzan in goal, Miles Robinson, Anton Walkes and Alan Franco as centerbacks, Brooks Lennon and George Bello as wingbacks, Matheus Rossetto as central midfielder and Araujo as a winger.
Pineda on Tuesday said the team’s preparation for the game was its best since he arrived. There was a focus on breaking down opponents in the final third and finishing chances.
While Atlanta United was competing to improve its seeding in the playoffs, Miami, which trailed the Five Stripes by five points before the match, was competing to make the playoffs.
Miami created the first good opportunity when Gonzalo Higuain was played in on goal. Facing Guzan in a one-on-one, with Robinson trying to catch up to the play, Higuain tripped over himself about 12 yards from goal. The ball rolled harmlessly away.
Atlanta United kept things simple in the 20th minute by working the ball from its left to right with short passes until it came to Araujo a few yards from goal. His tame shot was saved by Marsman.
Miami took a 1-0 lead after a penalty was called on Guzan in the 32nd minute by referee Guido Gonzales. It was converted by Higuain. The penalty came when Guzan and Miami’s Lewis Morgan went for a 50-50 ball near the top of the penalty box. Both Guzan and Morgan attempted to play the ball with one foot high in the air. The players collided with each other after attempting to play the ball.
That first score loomed huge because of Atlanta United’s record when the opponent scored first.
In the locker room at halftime, Araujo said the players spoke about needing to increase their intensity. When Pineda walked in, he said he saw a very calm, mature group of the players.
Because Pineda said the team was playing too laterally and not affecting Miami’s shape, Atlanta United created only three chances. To try to provide a spark, Pineda brought on Marcelino Moreno for Walkes to start the second half. With that sub, the team switched to playing four defenders instead of five. It’s a formation that the team practiced for a week during one of the breaks, Pineda said.
Miami was the team still creating better chances. Guzan kept Atlanta United behind by only one with a reflex save of a close-range shot by Higuain in the 54th minute.
But then Atlanta United found a gear that Miami couldn’t match, helped by the inclusion of Moreno in the central midfield, which created space and opportunities for teammates.
Dribbling furiously and running everywhere, Barco forced two yellow cards in the next few minutes, first to Jay Chapman in the 55th minute and then to Leerdam in the 57th minute.
The second yellow card created Araujo’s goal. He hit a clever free kick from 20 yards low, between players in the wall and under Marsman. It was Araujo’s third goal this season. It came in the 59th minute.
Pineda said he saw that the players in Miami’s wall were very tall, so he decided to try to go underneath and surprised Marsman.
Barco was fouled 12 times, tying an MLS single-game record. Atlanta United was fouled 25 times as a team, tying a club record.
“They had probably four or five yellow cards, maybe that’s fair, when at some points, maybe some key moments of the game, we expect better (from the officials),” Pineda said.
Martinez appeared to score a goal in the 72nd minute, but it was waved off after he was judged to be offside.
Martinez broke in on goal a minute later to slide a right-footed shot into the lower right corner and give Atlanta United a 2-1 lead. It was his 11th goal this season. Araujo was credited with the assist, his fourth this season, with a pass that split two lines of defenders with a perfect weight.
“It’s very important for my evolution here and adaptation process,” Araujo said of the assist. “And it’s important to get three points at home.”
Unlike its previous game against NYCFC, which Atlanta United led until the final minutes before allowing a goal in the final minutes, the team held on to close out the win.
But it needed another excellent save by Guzan, diving to his right to palm a header off the line, in the 89th minute to do so.
“I feel like it really showed where we’re at as a team right now in the season,” Bello said. “A lot of teams are tired right now, toward the end of the season, like going downwards, I feel like we’re on the upward path. So it’s good to see.”