Neither Josef Martinez nor Hector Villalba scored in Atlanta United’s 2-0 win against New England on Saturday, but both were invaluable in helping the Five Stripes (1-2-2) earn their first MLS win this season.
Villalba, playing on the wing in a 4-4-1-1 formation, was credited with assists on Ezequiel Barco’s goals. His speed ripped apart New England’s defense. He also had two shots on goal, both right at goalkeeper Cody Cropper.
“He’s always a threat with his unpredictable skills,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “His speed is sometimes amazing. He’s very difficult for defenders to defend because sometimes you don’t know what he does because he’s always going 100 percent. You saw today the danger he created for us.”
Martinez, playing as a striker with freedom to sometimes drop into a playmaker’s role, whiffed on a shot that likely would have resulted in his second goal in league play this season, but put teammates through on goal four times for scoring opportunities.
After scoring 34 goals in all games last season, Martinez’s lack of goals so far this season isn’t worrying his manager and teammates.
“Of course, he’s so eager to score, but he played fantastic,” de Boer said. “When he plays like this, his goals and his chances will come. I have no worry about that. He also has some fantastic passes. He worked hard. I’m 100 percent sure they will come if he plays like this.”
Winning makes everything better, and Atlanta United’s players got a few laughs from Saturday’s game.
Gressel joked that he told Martinez it’s OK to score when he passes him the ball. It was Gressel’s pass that Martinez uncharacteristically missed in the first half.
“I think first of all it’s important that we created chances for them,” Gressel said. “Josef could have had four goals, Tito another two. The goals will come.”
Barco laughed when asked if he realized he is the team’s leading goal-scorer (3).
“Our goal scorer is Josef,” he said. “Right now, he’s going through a moment where he’s not getting the luck for the balls to go in. He will soon revert to his usual form.”
Villalba laughed Tuesday when asked if the return to the 4-3-3, which the team used the previous two seasons, resulted in more confidence and, as a result, quicker play. After pointing out that the team played in the 4-4-1-1 – which is why he laughed -- he explained why the team looked better than it has compared with its previous four league games.
He said the team has trained in the 4-4-1-1 with Martinez dropping into a playmaking role. When Martinez moves further from goal, he brings defenders up the field with him. Their movements leave space behind the defense for Villalba and Gressel to run onto. A few of Martinez’s passes against New England did just that.
On the first goal, Martinez came back toward the ball and chipped a pass down the left sideline for Villalba to run through New England’s line and on to the ball. Villalba caught up to the pass, sprinted easily past Andrew Farrell to the end line, where he hit a simple pass back across the goal to Barco.
“The most important things in all of this is to win,” Villalba said. “That’s the main goal. But on a personal level, it’s always great when you are scoring goals or recording assists. But I said it last year, and it’s worth repeating: I love to assist my teammates. I really enjoy it. If I’m scoring goals, then great. But I love to assist my teammates.”
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