Two goals from Josef Martinez were enough to lead Atlanta United past a bunkering, determined Cincinnati 2-0 on Wednesday at Nippert Stadium.
The first goal was pure effort with Martinez sprinting three-fourths of the field before converting to score in his 15th consecutive league game. The second was the result of patience and kept his team’s pursuit of Philadelphia and NYCFC alive as it tries to finish in first in the MLS Eastern Conference.
The goals were a release against a Cincinnati team that played as many as 10 men behind the ball in an attempt to frustrate the Five Stripes.
“I don’t know why every team plays with us like this,” Martinez said. “It’s ridiculous. If you like to play like this, OK. If you want to win, you have to play forward. More in your house. In your house you have to win.
“We don’t play really good, but we win. That’s more important.”
Atlanta United improved to 51 points, one behind the Union and six behind NYCFC. Each team has four games remaining. Atlanta United (16-11-3) will host San Jose on Saturday. NYCFC will play at Dallas and Philadelphia will play at New York Red Bulls on Sunday.
Martinez’s 26 goals are two less than LAFC’s Carlos Vela in race for the Golden Boot.
Brad Guzan played his part too with several key saves, including one on a corner in the first half and another on a curving shot in the second half for his league-leading 14th shutout.
Manager Frank de Boer made one change to the starting 11 that was defeated by Columbus 3-1 last week. That change was Leandro Gonzalez Pirez in for Flo Pogba at centerback. The rest of the starters were Brad Guzan in goal, Miles Robinson and Franco Escobar as the other two centerbacks, Eric Remedi and Darlington Nagbe as the defensive midfielders, Julian Gressel and Justin Meram as the wingbacks, Emerson Hyndman as the attacking midfielder and Pity Martinez and Josef Martinez as the strikers.
Atlanta United was twice denied opportunities to change the game in the first 10 minutes by referee Marcos de Oliveira. The first was a possible handball in the penalty box in opening minutes. The second was Kekuta Manneh planting the studs of his cleats in Gonzalez Pirez’s abdomen. De Oliveira declined to review either play. The first sequence resulted in a corner kick. The second a throw in for Cincinnati.
Cincinnati created its first good scoring chance in the 31st minute when Maikel van der Werff’s got away from Gonzalez Pirez on a corner kick and put his header on frame. The shot was pushed away by a diving Guzan. Remedi headed the loose ball off the line to keep the game scoreless.
“The field’s not great so it kind of jumped up in terms of sticking,” Guzan said. “I was able to get a finger to it and Eric does his best at that moment. You just try to keep it out of the back of the net.”
The half finished with Atlanta United putting just one shot on goal despite dominating possession, 77.7-22.3 percent.
The lack of opportunities -- just six chances created -- was similar to the frustrating performances earlier in the league season.
“It was difficult the first half,” Hyndman said. “They sat in quite deep and made it difficult for us. We knew it was going to be quite a long game in that respect. Not to get impatient. Not to get onto ourselves too much. We were trying to do the right things. At times, we did pick up the pace in the first half. It just didn’t work for us.”
Cincinnati dominated the opening 10 minutes of the second half, putting three shots on goal.
But that dominance came with a price because it meant Cincinnati finally came out of its bunker and brought forth players.
Atlanta United made them pay.
Josef Martinez received a pass from Hyndman after a Cincinnati corner kick and passed it to Pity Martinez, who was near midfield. He split two defenders with a pass to Josef Martinez, who had continued his 80-yard sprint down the field. Martinez took a touch and beat Przemyslaw Tyton to give Atlanta United a 1-0 lead in the 59th minute.
Josef Martinez scored again five minutes later, picking up the ball in the penalty box from Gressel before waiting on two defenders to commit before curling a left-footed shot in the 65th minute. That resulted in his 19th multi-goal game in MLS since 2017. Work done by Hector Villalba was key to starting the sequence.
“I’m satisfied with the performance because when they park two buses in front of their own goal it’s quite difficult to create chances,” de Boer said.
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