Josef Martinez made history, Hector Villalba scored a goal-of-the-year candidate and Miguel Almiron added one more to lift Atlanta United to a 3-1 win against Columbus on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Martinez tied the MLS single-season scoring record when he notched his 27th goal, Columbus’ Gyasi Zardes scored the equalizer in the 50th minute, and then Villalba dribbled through most of the Crew’s team to score the winning goal in the 76th minute.
The win moves Atlanta United to a league-leading 51 points and ahead of the New York Red Bulls as the favorite to win the Supporters’ Shield.
“”Not only was it a great result, and Josef tied the record, but with the win today we have more win than we had last season with nine games still to play,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said.
Atlanta United entered Sunday in the unfamiliar spot of being tied with the Red Bulls in the East with 48 points. The Five Stripes had been alone in first in the East since April 28.
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The chase for the Supporters’ Shield among the East contenders will resume on Wednesday when the Red Bulls and NYCFC, the remaining challengers in the East, will play each other at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. Atlanta United will return to action at Orlando on Friday.
Martinez was kept under wraps through the game’s first 30 minutes. With Lalas Abubakar, Jonathan Mensah and Wil Trapp forming a tough triangle around the Venezuelan.
But, as has been the case this season, Martinez needed just a sliver of space to change the game.
That sliver came in the 31st minute.
Martinez tied the record and gave Atlanta United a 1-0 lead with a left-footed shot from 18 yards that skimmed past goalkeeper Zack Steffen on his right side.
“I tied it,” Martinez said. “What I want is to break it. When I break it, then I’ll be even more happy.”
It was Martinez’s first goal scored from outside the penalty box this season. Julian Gressel earned the assist, his ninth this season.
“It’s cool that I was the one to give him the assist,” Gressel said. “He’ll break the record sooner rather than later.”
Atlanta United appeared to lose yet another fullback – its fourth this season – when Chris McCann was forced off with a shoulder injury sustained just before the half. McCann landed awkwardly on his left shoulder while making a tackle. However, he was in the lineup to start the second half. The team has already lost Greg Garza (shoulder), Mikey Ambrose (knee) and Sal Zizzo (knee) to injuries this season.
Columbus tied the game at 1 on a 25-yard shot from Zardes in the 50th minute. Zardes was inexplicably left open in the middle of the field. Zardes received a long pass from Trapp, turned and before either Michael Parkhurst or Leandro Gonzalez Pirez could close him down, ripped a low screamer into the corner.
Though goalkeeper Brad Guzan couldn’t do much to stop Zardes’ first goal, he came up big three minutes later to use his foot to stop Zardes from 6 yards and keep the game tied.
The game continued to open up, similar to last year’s exciting playoff game featuring the two squads. Zardes missed another chance a few minutes later. Gressel put a chip from a tight angle over. Martinez hit the bar with a header.
Atlanta United finally broke through when Hector Villalba picked up the ball near midfield on the right side, blew past one defender and then dribbled all the way across the field and by two more defenders before putting a left-footed shot into the lower right corner. The goal was Villalba’s fourth this season and gave Atlanta United a 2-1 lead in the 76th minute.
“It’s kind of like a goal from FIFA,” he said. “I play as myself or Miguel and I make runs like that.”
Villalba’s goal was such a thing of beauty that Martino jumped into the arms of one of his assistant coaches as part of his celebration.
“It was a relief,” Martino said. “We wanted to win at home. Every once in a while ,I celebrate a goal like that.”
Atlanta United increased its lead to 3-1 on a goal by Almiron in the 82nd minute. Martinez picked up an assist when he laid the ball off about 20 yards away for Almiron to hammer with his left foot into the lower left corner. It was Almiron’s ninth goal this season.