Two goals by Josef Martinez carried Atlanta United to a 2-1 victory over NYCFC Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Martinez's first goal set two MLS records: most consecutive league games (10) with a goal and most goals scored (69) in three consecutive seasons. His second, which pushed that second record to 70, came on a penalty kick for his 20th goal this season as the race between him and Carlos Vela (23 goals) for the Golden Boot is suddenly interesting.
The victory keeps Atlanta United on pace with Philadelphia, who remains in first place in the East after defeating Houston, 2-1, Sunday. The win also keeps NYCFC, which has 38 points but has played two fewer games than the Five Stripes, at bay for now in the East. Atlanta United will play at NYCFC on Sept. 25.
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Atlanta United dominated the game and should have won by more. It set a season-high for shots on goal (9), won 55 duels to NYCFC’s 42 and owned possession with 56.7 percent.
“You saw the energy and ideas that we wanted, we executed it well,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer. “We kept them alive with only two goals but we could have scored much more.”
De Boer kept the 3-5-2 formation that has worked well in the past five games. In a surprise, Josef Martinez returned from an abductor injury sustained Monday to lead the line against NYCFC. Brad Guzan was again the goalkeeper with Franco Escobar, Miles Robinson and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez the centerbacks. Julian Gressel and Justin Meram were the wingbacks with Eric Remedi and Darlington Nagbe the defensive midfielders. Ezequiel Barco was the attacking midfielder with Pity Martinez as the second striker.
This was the second game since May 5 that both Josef and Pity Martinez, Barco and Tito Villalba, who was on the bench, made the same 18.
Atlanta United created three quality chances in the first three minutes, all from crosses by Gressel. Josef Martinez missed one, Barco missed another and NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson made a save to stop Josef Martinez on the third opportunity. On the first chance, Martinez had to stretch to get to Gressel’s cross. Martinez stayed down and was limping in his first steps after he got back up. He appeared to be fine minutes later.
Atlanta United continued to apply pressure with Johnson stopping a Gressel blast from about 6 yards to keep the game scoreless. The shot was the result of a great hustle play by Barco to win back possession after losing the ball. Meram got the ball and his chipped cross from the left went to Gressel on the right.
Atlanta United’s pressure started to wane and NYCFC started to gain some control of the game. Guzan was forced to come to the top of the penalty box in the 23rd minute to stop Valentin Castellanos in a one-on-one.
Atlanta United’s work looked to have paid off with a headed goal by Robinson in the 33rd minute. However, after a review referee Jair Marrufo ruled that Robinson pushed off to get himself open and the goal was disallowed, leaving the teams tied at nil.
Nine minutes later, Atlanta United scored and this time it stood.
Pity Martinez put Gressel into space down the right. His cross to the back post was met by Josef Martinez, who powered through Maxime Chanot, for his 19th goal this season. It was Gressel’s eighth assist and Pity Martinez’s seventh this season.
“That header was top quality,” de Boer said.
Pity Martinez drew a penalty in the 62nd minute when he was taken down in the box by James Sands. Josef Martinez converted the penalty in the 63rd minute. Pity Martinez wasn’t given an assist but should have. First, he legally knocked down NYCFC defender with a shoulder tackle. After recovering the ball, he charged into the box and fooled Sands, who chopped him down his right foot.
De Boer said he thought this was Pity Martinez’s best game this season.
“I don’t know if it was my best game because I didn’t score today, but over the course of the season, as time goes on, I’m getting more adapted to the league and all the changes,” Pity Martinez said. “The goal is to keep working, keep improving for the goals of the team.”
He had four shots, three on target, and created two chances.
NYCFC cut Atlanta United’s lead to 2-1 on a goal by Heber in the 81st minute from the top of the penalty box. It was the first goal allowed by Atlanta United in approximately 306 minutes across all competitions.
Atlanta United improved to 10-1-3 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this season as part of a league-best 11-game unbeaten streak at home. It will host Club America Wednesday in the Campeones Cup before it flies to Oregon on Friday to play Sunday at Portland.
“We talked about before the game, we talked about knowing what being a good team is about and what it to means to be a good team,” Guzan said. “Being a good team is consistent home and away. For most of the game tonight we were. We were good.”
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