ATLANTA — Franco Escobar's goal helped Atlanta United defeat New England 1-0 on Saturday in the first round of the playoffs, keeping alive the team's pursuit of its second consecutive MLS Cup.
Atlanta United will host in the second round at 8 p.m. Thursday the winner of Sunday’s game between the New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia in Chester, Pa.
The goal in the 70th minute came after good work by Ezequiel Barco and a tactical change by manager Frank de Boer in front of an announced attendance of 66,114 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Channel 2 sports anchor Alison Mastrangelo will have highlights and team reaction, tonight on the Channel 2 Action News Nightbeat.
Saturday’s performance was reminiscent of many of Atlanta United’s games in last year’s playoffs: disciplined defense and opportunistic offense. New England had more shots on goal (6-2) when Atlanta United scored the decider, but goalkeeper Brad Guzan was equal each time.
Atlanta United remains unbeaten at home in tournament games this season, improving to 7-0.
De Boer selected 10 of the 11 players who started the 3-1 win against New England on Oct. 6. The only change was captain Michael Parkhurst in place of the injured Miles Robinson. The remaining 10: Guzan, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Escobar as the other centerbacks, Julian Gressel and Justin Meram as the wingbacks, Jeff Larentowicz and Darlington Nagbe as the defensive midfielders, Emerson Hyndman as the attacking midfielder and Ezequiel Barco and Josef Martinez as the strikers. Nagbe, Martinez and Gressel were the scorers in that 3-1 win.
Without Robinson, whose speed and athleticism often cleaned up mistakes when Atlanta United went aggressively forward, the team played conservatively in the opening minutes.
Still, picking moments to attack, Atlanta United twice came close in the first 12 minutes. First, Martinez missed from a tight angle after being put through by Larentowicz, who won the ball with a touch tackle about 35 yards from goal. Nagbe forced a save with a low, hard shot a few minutes. Barco, put through by Martinez, put a left-footed shot over the crossbar. Martinez later missed a short-range shot after a well-worked corner kick routine left him open to receive the ball at the back post.
New England started to gain control with Guzan forced into two tough saves, the second a diving effort to his left after Gonzalez Pirez misread an attempted header at midfield, which led to a Revs attack.
There was a controversial moment near the end of the half when it appeared that New England goalkeeper Matt Turner made contact with Martinez’s right calf and foot as both were trying to reach the ball. Referee Kevin Stott gave Martinez a yellow card for simulation.
New England dominated the opening minutes of the second half until Meram got down the left wing and put in a cross. Barco hit an awkward left-footed shot that Turner saved low to his right.
De Boer elected in the 65th minute to make a formation change to try to spark his team. Hector Villalba came on for Meram and Flo Pogba for Hyndman. With those changes came a switch to a 4-4-1-1 formation, which Atlanta United used for a stretch earlier this season.
The moves worked.
After a good spell of attacking, Atlanta United broke through when Barco put Escobar into space on a hard run from right back toward the end line. Escobar roofed his shot from a tight angle in the 70th minute. Of Escobar’s five goals in the past two season, three have come in the playoffs.
Parkhurst sustained what appeared to be a left shoulder injury in stoppage time after a collision with a New England player. The game was stopped for several minutes while trainers examined Parkhurst. Larentowicz dropped back into Parkhurst’s spot in the four-man backline.
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