After two weeks off, Atlanta United returned to action at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against a bitter Eastern Conference rival Columbus Crew. The five stripes were able to exact sweet revenge against the club that killed their playoff hopes last season with a 3-1 victory in front of 45,309 fans. The highlight of the match was in the 31′ when Julian Gressel sent a perfect through ball to Josef Martinez who dribbled the ball 1 v 3 and scored the game’s first goal. With that goal, he tied the MLS record for most goals in a season.
“It was a difficult result, they’re one of the best teams in the league,” said a very happy Martinez after the match. “I’m happy about the win, happy about the goal, so I’m happy.”
Gyasi Zardes scored a nice finesse goal in the 50′ to draw the match 1-1. But in the 76′, a speedy, agile Tito Villalba ran 50 yards downfield after a Crew mistake and scored a beauty of a goal. After weaving between defenders in the box, Villalba ran to his left then fired a low ball to the right past goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
“I’m happy that he scored the goal,” said Tito Villalba after the match. “But I want him to keep going.”
In the 81′, Martinez played the assist man as he held the ball instead of shooting. This gave time to lay off a pass to Miguel Almirón who fired a finesse ball past Steffen for United’s third goal of the match. This was his first goal in a month and a half.
After the match, Josef Martinez was all smiles but didn’t seem overly excited about tying the league record for goals. “When I get to 28 I’ll have something to be happy about.”
One last detail that made the night so special was the return of Ezequiel Barco. His presence on the pitch, with his speed and possession, drew a lot of attention from the defense. Because of this, players like Almirón and Villalba were able to find open space and create chances. After the match, I asked him how it felt to be back on the pitch. “Great, great!” he responded. “It’s good to get some minutes so I can feel more confident and I thank my teammates for helping me feel good on the field.”
The red, black, and gold are on the road for their next four matches against Orlando City, D.C. United, Colorado Rapids, and San Jose Earthquakes. Their next home match will be Sept. 22, 2018, against Real Salt Lake.
Photo: Hakim Wright