Just three days after their away victory in Chicago, the Fives Stripes played a midweek match against Sporting KC. It was a match that many had been looking forward to since United’s convincing win against the Fire. Now that Atlanta is the best in the East and KC is the best in the West, Wednesday’s clash was an early test to see who indeed was the best in the MLS (in front of 44,696 fans no less).
Atlanta manager Tata Martino introduced a revamped 4-2-3-1 formation for the match. The three midfielders in attack were Tito Villalba, Miguel Almirón, and Ezequiel Barco. The only changes were Tito back in the starting XI and Sal Zizzo playing opposite Greg Garza on the wings (Julian Gressel was on the bench).
In the 5′ minute, Atlanta United was on the counterattack with Leandro Gónzalez-Pirez leading the push. A collapsing Pirez found Miguel Almirón who laid the ball off to Ezequiel Barco. Barco’s shot ricocheted off a defender and landed at the feet of Josef Martinez but was unfortunately offside (he tapped in the goal but after VAR review it was ruled he was offside).
United continued to push and find Martinez when Almirón drilled a low cross through the box and past the face of goal missing Josef by just a few yards.
Disaster struck in the 33′ when poor defending by Michael Parkhurst forced Brad Guzan to leave the box and challenge a through ball. Guzan tackled the Sporting KC player but completely missed the ball resulting in a straight red card. With a power packed starting XI Tata was forced to pull a player so a backup keeper could be brought in. Unfortunately, that sacrifice was Tito Villalba, who had started for the first time since recovering from a knock. The man in goal was the 18-year-old Paul Christensen who signed just a few days ago as part of an “Extreme Hardship” case (United didn’t have any goalkeepers available so they signed him for four days from Atlanta United 2).
Things didn’t get any easier for Atlanta United in the second half as Sporting KC took full advantage of being a man up. In the 66′, they finally hit paydirt when Dániel Sallói sent a low curler past the young Christensen to take the lead 1-0.
In the 83′, the Five Stripes had a free kick about 22 yards away (just outside the 18) and everyone knew that Kevin Kratz would be the man to take it. The angle was sharp but he nailed it, on target, but KC keeper Tim Melia dove for his life to make the save. Another free kick came in the same spot and Kratz delivered yet again but the keeper stretched for his life to salvage the clean sheet.
Unfortunately, LGP continued to press high and KC sent a long ball when he was out of position. Gerso Fernandes deeked Christensen and made him go to ground, making his way to an open net for the easy second goal.
The reversed goal plus the red card totally affected the outcome of the match. Outside of the late-match blip, my Man of the Match goes to LGP. He defended his tail off for 90 minutes and had to work double time thanks to the mid-match sendoff.
Atlanta will try to move past this and get ready for another away spell but with Orlando City.
*Photos Courtesy of ATL UTD