Josef Martinez goal lifts Atlanta United past LAFC
Team wins second consecutive game for first time since early in 2020
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Atlanta United fans cheer their team to a 1-0 victory over the Los Angeles FC during the first half Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
With the victory, in front of an announced attendance of 67,503, Atlanta United (4-6-9) moved to five points behind Montreal for the seventh and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 15 games remaining. Atlanta United will host Toronto Wednesday. The team has taken seven points from its past three games. Its last winning streak came against Nashville and Cincinnati in the first two games of the 2020 season.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan made it stand with three saves for his fourth shutout in a league game this season.
The performance wasn’t like the previous few games under interim manager Rob Valentino, who will give way on Thursday to new manager Gonzalo Pineda. The team created just six chances, two in the second half, put just six shots on goal.
“It was not pretty at times, but that says a lot about them,” Valentino said. “But I’m proud that they found a way to win, when maybe at times it was, it was really difficult for them.”
Valentino’s starting 11 was almost the same as he used in the previous game, a 3-2 win at Columbus: Striker Martinez, the one change because he finished his one-game suspension, midfielders Marcelino Moreno, Ezequiel Barco, Santiago Sosa and Matheus Rossetto, wingbacks Ronald Hernandez and George Bello, centerbacks Miles Robinson, Alan Franco and Anton Walkes, and Guzan. Newly signed Designated Player Luiz Araujo was not available.
After a mostly listless first 30 minutes, Martinez wasted Atlanta United’s best scoring chance when he took one touch many with only the goalkeeper to beat. The play started with Sosa intercepting a LAFC pass. Barco picked it up with Moreno on his right and Martinez on his left, facing two LAFC defenders. Barco played Martinez into space. He took a touch and, instead of shooting with his left foot, tried to cut back against the defender. That attempted move resulted in him losing the ball.
LAFC thought it had a 1-0 lead in the 40th minute on a goal by Mamadou Fall, but he was ruled offside after referee Chris Penso reviewed the free kick.
“At times it felt like it wasn’t in our character, the first half, it didn’t look like the team that we’ve seen,” Valentino said. “And so at halftime, we spoke about that.”
Atlanta United took a 1-0 lead in the 47th minute on a goal by Martinez, who was assisted by Barco. The play started with Moreno, in his own half, creating space and then turning toward LAFC’s goal. Seeing Barco and Martinez against two defenders, Moreno hit a pass down field. LAFC’s Jesus Murillo badly misplayed the ball, allowing it to go past. Barco ran onto the ball, took a dribble and then hit a pass across to Martinez for the one-time, right-footed finish into the left corner. It was Martinez’s fifth goal and Barco’s third assist this season. After the goal, Martinez ran over and hugged Barco before picking him up. After the first group teammates finished their celebration, Martinez continued to hug Barco, picking him up again before the second group arrived to celebrate.
“I say thank you, because, you know, we talk a lot about passes making goals,” Martinez said.” And that’s why I said totally, thank you.”
It was Martinez’s first goal at Mercedes-Benz Stadium since Oct. 24, 2019.
Valentino said the long pass made by Moreno was something the team worked on during the week and discussed again at halftime. The point was if a teammate saw Martinez being marked by one man, try to play the ball to him.
“That’s what this team I feel like is very, very good at,” Valentino said. “And that’s that’s what I want to just try to get back to a little bit and we I think we had a little bit of luck on it. But he (Moreno) did the right thing ... and Martinez got his goal so it’s good for him and for the team.”
Moreno’s move worked and was aided by LAFC changing formations at halftime, which resulted in that one-on-one situation.
Valentino subbed on Brooks Lennon in place of Hernandez in the 64th minute. It was Lennon’s first appearance since June 30 against Orlando — during which he sustained an injury. He missed the next two games.
Atlanta United thought it had a second goal in the 65th minute when Martinez put another past LAFC’s Tomas Romero, but he was ruled to be offside.
With LAFC increasing its pressure in an attempt to find a tying goal, Valentino subbed on fresh legs with Amar Sejdic and Erik Lopez for Rossetto and Moreno in the 76th minute.
The team held on, facing 16 LAFC shots but just three were put on goal.
After the game, Valentino said he quickly checked his cell phone. He had already received a message of congratulations from Pineda.
“I can’t compliment that guy enough,” Valentino said. “I can’t imagine how hard it is, you get your opportunity, and you can’t be here. But you know, I’ve been in contact with him. And for me, he is with us. He is part of this. And we want to make sure that messages is portrayed. And when he gets here, what more open arms and we’ll get all over.”