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Martinez pushes Atlanta United past NYCFC in MLS playoffs

Atlanta United Josef Martinez scores the team’s first goal on a penalty kick for a 1-0 lead over New York City during the first half in their MLS Eastern Conference Semifinal playoff match on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, in Atlanta.  Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Atlanta United Josef Martinez scores the team’s first goal on a penalty kick for a 1-0 lead over New York City during the first half in their MLS Eastern Conference Semifinal playoff match on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Atlanta United is moving on in the MLS playoffs, thanks to two of its biggest stars who shined in the team’s first playoff win at home.

Two goals from Josef Martinez and another from Miguel Almiron lifted Atlanta United to a 3-1 victory over NYCFC in the second leg of an MLS Eastern Conference semifinal on Sunday  at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in front of a league-record crowd of more than 70,000. Combined with last week's 1-0 win at Yankee Stadium, Atlanta United outscored NYCFC 4-1 in the two-game series and will move on to the conference finals.

“Another solid performance from the whole team,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said. “We stayed organized but conceded some position. We knew we would create chances at home. We score two set pieces and then finish it off with Josef. We are very happy.”

The Five Stripes will play New York Red Bulls. Atlanta United will host the first game on Nov. 25 and travel to Harrison, N.J. for the second on Nov. 29.

Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino, whose silhouette was the subject of a large, silver tifo made by the team’s supporters groups and unveiled just before kickoff, made a small gamble with his starting 11. In place of the injured Jeff Larentowicz, who has 391 MLS appearances, Martino went with Miles Robinson, who has 10 MLS appearances, at centerback.

That was the only change but made sense because Robinson, Atlanta United’s first-ever draft pick, may be the most physically gifted centerback Atlanta United has, a combination of speed and athleticism, though lacking experience. Martino said Robinson was one of the team’s best players on Sunday.

Atlanta United didn’t change defensive tactics that worked in the first game. One player consistently marked striker David Villa. Another, usually Eric Remedi and sometimes Robinson, marked midfielder Maxi Moralez. Neither influenced the result. Moralez had just one shot on goal, Villa had none for the second consecutive game.

“The idea was to stay as close as I could to him the whole game and not let him turn and face the goal,” Remedi said.

Atlanta United also didn’t sit back and try to preserve its 1-0 lead. As it has done most of the season, it attacked, so well that Martino said it showed the best aspects of his team: they possessed the ball in NYCFC’s half and got two of its goals.

The strategy paid off in the 25th minute when Franco Escobar sent into space with a great pass by Darlington Nagbe. Onto the ball, Escobar was taken down by Ismael Tajouri-Shradi in the penalty box. Martinez converted the penalty to give Atlanta United a 1-0 lead in the game, and 2-0 aggregate lead in the series. It was Martinez’s 32nd goal this season.

Almiron gave Atlanta United a 2-0 lead in the 42nd minute with a 25-yard free kick from the center of the pitch into the upper left corner. Almiron earned the free kick after being taken down from behind by Yangel Herrera. It was the second goal scored by Atlanta United on a set piece in the series. It was Almiron’s 13th goal this season and first on a free kick.

Almiron said he and Martinez discussed doing a 1-2 pass on the free kick before he decided to take the shot. He said he wasn’t sure it was going in.

“This one was a miracle,” he said.

NYCFC showed life with a goal in the 45th minute on a free kick. The kick was the result of a foul by Escobar, who also received a yellow card. The goal was scored by Maxime Chanot, who was being marked by Escobar but beat him to the back post to head the free kick past goalkeeper Brad Guzan.

NYCFC kept up the pressure to start the second half. Guzan was forced to make another save when Moralez, who is 5-foot-3, escaped Remedi and cut in front of Robinson for a header.

Guzan dove down to his right to stop a shot by Valentin Castellanos in the 56th minute.

Martino described those opening minutes of the second half the worst form of the team’s night.

Atlanta United started to break through the gaps in NYCFC’s formation as it poured players forward for the second goal. Almiron put a shot high and wide. Nagbe put a shot over the goal. Almiron was then beaten by Johnson, who came off his line, in a one-on-one chance in the 66th minute.

Martinez capped the scoring in the 83rd minute with a right-footed shot into the upper right corner. Remedi was credited with the assist.

“This is very important for us, but we have to keep our feet on the ground because we haven’t won anything yet,” Almiron said. “We are going to enjoy this and then keep working hard for what’s coming.”