Atlanta United midfielder Hector Villaiba reacts to scoring a goal for a 3-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls with Michael Amir Murillo looking on during the second half in their Eastern Conference finals MLS soccer game on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Villalba, Barco difference-makers as subs for Atlanta United

Trying to defend the Atlanta United duo of Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron can be difficult enough.

Martinez is the all-time leading single-season scorer in MLS history with 34 goals, including one in a 3-0 win over New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference finals Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Almiron, with 12 goals and 14 assists and also a league MVP candidate, added an assist. 

Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino has found another pair that he says presents the same problems: Hector Villalba and Ezequiel Barco.

With the combination of roster talent and tactics, Villalba and Barco are being deployed as superb subs in the second half of playoff games. Both were factors in helping Atlanta United secure the crucial third goal in the first leg.

“Barco is able to come in with his quickness, his speed, his ability on the ball and he can score, so he does a good job of replicating some of the things that Miguel does,” Martino said. “And then Tito (Villalba) comes on and he can play as a forward. He’s very fast and can also score. In last 10 minutes of a game, those guys are good at coming in and supplementing what Miguel and Josef do.”

Used as reserves, and not starters, are probably not the roles that either player presumed before the season.

Barco was brought in as the most expensive transfer in MLS history, with a reported fee of $15 million.

Villalba was coming off a season in which he was part of a small group of players in the league that scored at least 10 goals and added 10 assists.

But injuries, bad luck, other acquisitions and the best interest of the team pushed that duo into roles off the bench for part of the regular season and three playoff games. 

Villalba started just 21 games during the regular season after starting 34 last season. He finished with seven goals and nine assists after posting 13 and 11 last year. Barco started 19 games, scoring four goals and notching three assists.

Now, with a focus on defense as part of a 3-5-2 formation being used in the postseason, both players are coming off the bench and thriving.

“I think that this is what every coach wants is to have guys as talented as they are who have accepted their role and have that right mentality,” Martino said. “They are such talented players. I think for any really good team with very good players, that’s a trait of good teams that despite how many talented guys they have who are kept off the field, everyone has still bought in and concentrated.”

Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said there’s no bigger headache for a defender than, after 80 minutes, to look up and see one of the league’s fastest players in Villalba about to come on.

Villalba tore through the Red Bulls defense Sunday. On the field for just 21 minutes, he took three shots. One forced a fantastic save from goalkeeper Luis Robles. One hit the post. The last was a left-footed rocket into the lower corner for the final goal.

“The goal came from all year, I’ve been in and out with injuries,” he said. “It just came from all the hard work I’ve been doing.”

Villalba continued to find space partially because of the work done by Barco, who made intelligent runs to pull away defenders and create dribbling lanes. Barco also served as a useful outlet for the defenses with his ability to take the ball and work his way into space, or draw fouls.

“Both guys are super-helpful off the bench as far as putting pressure on the defense when they are trying to push for the goal,” Parkhurst said.

That quality off the bench is an important factor in the playoffs. 

“The only thing I have to say is that there are very few teams who have players coming off the bench like Tito (Villalba) or Ezequiel (Barco) who are able to change a game or make a difference in a game,” Martino said.

While Villalba, Barco and Chris McCann contributed in Sunday’s wins, the Red Bulls subs weren’t as effective.

They follow the lead set by Miles Robinson, who stepped into the starting lineup in the second leg of the semifinals and helped Atlanta United advance past NYCFC.

“Who knows who it will be against Red Bulls?” Parkhurst said.  “Each player on the bench has to be ready to step up, ready for their chance. They are a reason why we are winning games.”

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