A goal and assist from Julian Gressel, and a goal from Hector Villalba carried Atlanta United to a 2-0 victory over Real Salt Lake in front of an announced attendance of 72,017 on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Atlanta United’s third consecutive win in the past eight days and eighth shutout this season increased its league-leading points total to 63. Combined with NYCFC’s draw against Montreal, Atlanta United clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs.
“We got nine points, but what leaves me the most calm and most comfortable is we played our best game of the three,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said.
In the race for the Supporter’s Shield, Atlanta United is four points clear of the New York Red Bulls. The two teams will play Sept. 30 at Red Bull Arena.
With four games remaining, Atlanta United needs six points to tie league’s all-time points total in a season (69) set by Toronto last year.
Martino elected not to start Michael Parkhurst, 34 years old, and Chris McCann, 31. Instead, Martino gave 16-year-old Douglasville native George Bello his first MLS start at left fullback in place of McCann, and moved Franco Escobar from fullback to centerback in pace of Parkhurst.
“We have young players, but we are able to add them to a very solid team,” Martino said. “so when they get put on the field there’s a better chance that they can play well because of the guys around them.”
Bello said he was nervous, but it didn’t show. He tied for the team lead in tackles (4).
“I was kind of jittery, kind of shaking, but last night I got some rest,” he said. “Once I got that first touch of the ball, I was like, ‘Alright, this is what I do.’ ”
Villalba had two chances to give Atlanta United its first lead. He hit the post with one shot, which hit the bar and bounced back to goalkeeper Nick Rimando. In the 32nd minute, Villalba had a tap-in that he hit too hard, sending it to the wrong side of the post.
Atlanta United struck first in the 37th minute when Miguel Almiron beat his defender to the end line, and put a cross across the penalty box. Gressel trapped it with his chest and hit a half-volley into the opposite corner. It was a great piece of skill, Gressel’s third goal this season and Almiron’s career high-tying 14th assist. He is the eighth player in MLS history to have at least 14 assists in consecutive seasons.
“The ball bounces perfectly onto my chest; I didn’t have to jump or anything,” Gressel said. “It went right where it was supposed to go.”
Atlanta United increased its lead to 2-0 on Villalba’s seventh goal this year and Gressel’s 14th assist. Villalba’s shot from 20 yards hit the post, bounced off Rimando, and back into the goal. As nice as the goal was, the dummy header played by Josef Martinez froze his defender and gave Villalba the time and space to get off the shot.
Bello wasn’t the only player to make his Atlanta United debut. Fullback Jose Hernandez, who came in for Bello in the 73rd minute, saw his first time with the senior team.
“I don’t know if it’s a confidence boost,” Jeff Larentowicz said after the team won its past three games. “We set the goal. We reached it. I think it was huge for us.”
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