Mercedes-Benz Stadium provided a cool relief on an unseasonably late-September afternoon for a boisterous group of Atlanta United soccer fans. Another sell-out crowd of 43,502 witnessed a high-quality soccer match between the visiting Montreal Impact and an always exciting Atlanta United FC. The Impact were coming into the Sunday afternoon game with an 11-12-6 record while the 5-Stripe were confidently boasting a 13-8-7 record, but an even more impressive 9-2-2 record at home and an 8-0-2 unbeaten record streak in their last 10 home games.
In an effort not to let down the Atlanta United fans, the home team came away with yet another victory, beating the Impact 2-0 in one of the most exciting soccer games ever played in the short existence of the new 5-Stripe club. Atlanta United were looking to avenge their earlier loss to the Impact, as this would be their second meeting of the 2017 season. While all eyes were on the talented strikers from the opposing clubs, Josef Martinez (17 goals in 15 games) and Ignacio Piatti (17 goals and 6 assists in 24 games), the stat sheet would pick up some lesser-known names from the Atlanta United roster. Tito Villalba and Jeff Larentowicz both scored with Carlos Carmona and Julian Gressel picking up the assists. Brad Guzan had a stellar afternoon in the net as he picked up his 5th shutout in his 10 games played for Atlanta United.
The win brings Atlanta United into 3rd place in the Eastern Conference, while the loss for the Impact keeps them in 7th place and one spot below the playoff line.
As the game got going in the first 15 minutes, Atlanta United had several quality chances down both flanks, Yamil Asad and Villalba were doing work on the wings, both beating their opponents with dynamic movement and spot-on control. The Impact goalkeeper, Evan Bush, had to come up big during the first minute, turning away several chances from Villalba, Miguel Almiron, and Asad.
However, in the 17th minute, Coach Tata Martino was forced to manage his team much earlier than he wanted, as Miguel Almiron was subbed out due to an apparent hamstring injury. Almiron pulled up after making a hard run down the right wing. He tried to continue for a few minutes before signaling to the bench that he needed a replacement. That replacement was Julian Gressel, who did an admirably good job of filling Almiron’s boots. Gressel had already proven himself as a worthy midfielder in that he started 19 of the 26 games he has played in this season for the 5-Stripes. Even so, to lose an Almiron early in the game makes for a difficult task, as he creates so much with his movement and vision in the midfield.
As the first half sped by with action on both ends of the field, there seemed to be an even larger than normal energy in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and that excitement came to fruition in the 26th minute when the referee missed an obvious handball deflection in the box. Josef Martinez broke free into the left side of the box where he hit a hard, driven ball towards the back post. The ball struck the Impact defender’s arm, causing it to fly back. The referee didn’t see it that way…either way, it was very cool to hear 43000 fans showing their soccer knowledge and getting behind their Atlanta United team as the people out on North Avenue could no doubt hear the displeasure of the 5-Stripe faithful inside the Stadium.
Just 2 minutes later, in the 28th minute, there would be an absolute rip of a goal from Tito Villalba. The play started from strong defensive pressure by the Atlanta United attacking players. Villalba tackled Patrice Bernier, causing the ball to go to the feet of Carlos Carmona, who quickly played the ball back to Tito. Villalba megged one Montreal defender and then unleashed a 20-yard bomb into the right upper-ninety that Bush had no chance of saving. This was Villalba’s 12th goal of the season (good for second on the team), and Carmona’s 2nd assist of 2017.
Carmona, who later would be named Man of the Match, provides a tireless work rate in the midfield. While Almiron is an obviously very important part of the team, Carmona is a behind the scenes kind of player. His job is to play the #8 role in the midfield, connecting passes from the defense to players like Almiron, Asad, and Villalba to help get them in behind the defense. Many times, his passes are the ones that set up the assist makers for the goals. So, his job is very important! The 30-year old native Chilean has an impressive background playing in 2 World Cups and most recently playing in the Serie A in Italy before signing with Atlanta United. He is a force for the 5-Stripes and they are lucky to have him!
As the first half ended, the captain, Michael Parkhurst saved a breakaway chance by sliding to tackle the ball away from Anthony Jackson-Hamel. It was a huge play to keep a clean sheet for Atlanta United going into halftime.
With the game close at half, the second half had the potential to be much more exciting than last Wednesday’s game where Atlanta went into the half up comfortably. The 2nd half did not disappoint! There were quality chances for both sides as the game was back and forth. It seemed like every time there would be a great chance saved by one team, the other team would answer with a goal-scoring opportunity on the opposite side of the field.
Jackson-Hamel would have a quality chance muscled away by Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez as they bodied Jackson-Hamel off the ball, which allowed Guzan to come through and gather the ball easily. Then, not to be outdone, Martinez would have his best chance of the afternoon blocked as he danced on the ball in the box finally getting a right-footed shot off. The rebound went straight to Villalba who seemed to have a clear shot at an open net, however, Bush made an outstanding save to keep the Impact in the game.
In the 72nd-minute Impact substitute, Micahael Salazar broke free into the right side of the box and had a game-tying shot lined up to beat Guzan. However, Guzan had other things in mind, making a huge save to preserve the shutout! As all great goalkeepers do, Guzan came out and made himself as big as possible closing the space between him and Salazar. As Salazar shot, Guzan made a “skate save” with his left foot, sending the ball harmlessly towards the left flank.
In tune with the flow of the second half, Atlanta United would come right back with a quality chance of their own. However, this time, the 5-stripes would come away with their second goal of the match. In the 74th minute, Larentowicz worked forward from his holding mid position, making his way into the box to finish a right-footed bent cross from Gressel. The perfectly played cross would bounce off Larentowicz’s chest into the net beating the Impact defense and Bush in the process. Larentowicz’s first goal of the season helped to calm the nerves of the Atlanta United crowd as the Impact had been pressing and searching for the game-tying goal.
Coach Tata crammed the middle with the 2nd half substitution in Kevin Kratz, by bringing off winger Villalba and throwing Kratz into the middle. The move worked out great as it totally disrupted the attack from the Canadian club. The crowd was surely hoping for another free-kick opportunity from Kratz, but the opportunity never presented itself.
Atlanta United defended with a passion this afternoon, obviously wanting to keep the shutout on a borderline playoff team. The total team effort on defense was key, as the early injury of Almiron looked to be a game changer…However, the rest of the 5 Stripes stepped up and made up for his absence. Gressel was a big part of that. His hard-nosed defending and strong, quality runs out of the midfield were much needed in order for Atlanta United to be successful.
Atlanta United are back in town for yet another home game this Wednesday, September 27th. Come out and join the 5-Stripe party as Atlanta United look to continue their home dominance taking on the Philadelphia Union.