Pity Martinez comes up big in another big game for Atlanta United

October 24, 2019 Atlanta - Atlanta United midfielder Gonzalo Martinez (10) is fouled by Philadelphia Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya (11) in the first half during Eastern Conference semifinals of MLS playoffs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday, October 24, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

caption arrowCaption
October 24, 2019 Atlanta - Atlanta United midfielder Gonzalo Martinez (10) is fouled by Philadelphia Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya (11) in the first half during Eastern Conference semifinals of MLS playoffs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday, October 24, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

When Atlanta United plays important games this season, Pity Martinez typically delivers.

He did so again in Thursday's 2-0 victory against Philadelphia to move the Five Stripes into the Eastern Conference finals against Toronto on Wednesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Similar to his performances in the final of the Campeones Cup against Club America and the U.S. Open title game against Minnesota, Martinez split Philadelphia’s defense time and time again with precise passes. His defense, something of an issue during regular-season games, was magnificent and included a lung-busting run of some 60 yards late in the second half to successfully slow a Philadelphia counterattack. He created four chances, won five fouls and completed 84 percent of his passes.

It was a performance certifying his Designated Player tag and may have helped ease any bitterness of not playing a minute in the previous two games.

“I’m going to be here when the coach needs me,” he said through an interpreter. “I’m 100 percent ready to play, after that it’s the coach’s decision if I play or not. Today, I showed that I’m still playing well. I’m happy that we’re going to another final, that’s not a small feat. This is what the team is looking for, to keep growing, keep breaking records, and maintain a winning mentality.”

Manager Frank de Boer said he selected Martinez to start because he wanted him to use his playmaking abilities to put Philadelphia’s Haris Medunjanin under pressure. Medunjanin is not the best defender and his lack of pace can make him a liability, especially considering that he plays just in front of Philadelphia’s back line. De Boer said he wanted Martinez to use Ezequiel Barco, Josef Martinez and Julian Gressel’s runs into space to create scoring opportunities.

The first goal couldn’t have been written better.

Barco passed backward near midfield to Darlington Nagbe, who one-timed a pass to Gressel in the center of the pitch. He one-timed a pass to Pity Martinez, who flicked the ball over the stabbing foot of Jack Elliott. Medunjanin moved over to close down Martinez, while pointing with his right hand at the space behind him. Gressel filled the space. Martinez hit a perfectly weighted short pass into the area. As Philadelphia goalkeeper Andre Blake sprinted out of his goal to try to reach the ball, Gressel got there first and chipped a shot over him, off the crossbar and into the goal in the 10th minute.

“Yeah, I was screaming at him to just kind of lay it in there because I saw it developing that way,” Gressel said. “That was a great pass. He kind of just instinctively thought that I was going to run on like that, and I was able to do that. ...”

Martinez wasn’t done.

In the second half he hit a left-footed chipped pass some 25 yards over Philadelphia’s back line to Josef Martinez, whose shot missed because Raymond Gattis made a last-gasp block in the 69th minute.

“They are the magicians, but I’m very happy Pity returned and that he came out in the best way,” Josef Martinez said. “I know it’s difficult when you haven’t played in a while and you have to play a game like this.”

Pity Martinez’s last contribution was the long run back to slow down a Philadelphia attack. After he made the Union player turn back into the field, which slowed him, Atlanta United won back the ball, and Martinez’s teammates were there to thank him for the effort with hand-slaps.

“I’m sure Pity was upset before the last game, and I think he knew pretty early on that he was going to start this one,” Gressel said. “So maybe there was some extra motivation for him as well that came off from not starting the last game. He played a great game, and he deserves the man of the match, as well.”

De Boer has several days to decide on a lineup for Wednesday’s final against Toronto. He said he typically chooses the formation 3-4 days before the game.

Toronto is similar to Philadelphia in that Michael Bradley, like Medunjanin, is the passer who sparks the offense. Also like Medunjanin, he isn’t as quick as those around him and can be a defensive liability. It stands to reason that de Boer may apply the same tactics to Toronto that were successful against Philadelphia.

“I’m trying to help the team and lend a hand when the team needs me to be there,” Pity Martinez said. “We’ve got to stay on this path, as I said it’s an enormous joy to be in another final, and now, we have to win it anyway possible.”

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