ATLANTA - Atlanta United is moving on in the MLS playoffs, thanks to two of its biggest stars who shined in the team’s first playoff win at home.
Two goals from Josef Martinez and another from Miguel Almiron lifted Atlanta United to a 3-1 victory over NYCFC in the second leg of an MLS Eastern Conference semifinal on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in front of a league-record crowd of more than 70,000. Combined with last week’s 1-0 win at Yankee Stadium, Atlanta United outscored NYCFC 4-1 in the two- game series and will move on to the conference finals.
Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino, whose silhouette was the subject of a large, silver tifo made by the team’s supporters groups and unveiled just before kickoff, made a small gamble with his starting 11. In place of the injured Jeff Larentowicz, who has 391 MLS appearances, Martino went with Miles Robinson, who has 10 MLS appearances, at centerback.
That was the only change but made sense because Robinson, Atlanta United’s first-ever draft pick, may be the most physically gifted centerback Atlanta United has, a combination of speed and athleticism, though lacking experience.
Atlanta United didn’t change defensive tactics that worked in the first game. One player consistently marked striker David Villa. Another, usually Eric Remedi, marked midfielder Maxi Moralez. Neither influenced the result.
Atlanta United also didn’t sit back and try to preserve its 1-0 lead. As it has done most of the season, it attacked.
The strategy paid off in the 25th minute when Franco Escobar sent into space with a great pass by Darlington Nagbe. Onto the ball, Escobar was taken down by Ismael Tajouri-Shradi in the penalty box. Martinez converted the penalty to give Atlanta United a 1-0 lead in the game, and 2-0 aggregate lead in the series. It was Martinez’s 32nd goal this season.
Almiron gave Atlanta United a 2-0 lead in the 42nd minute with a 25-yard free kick from the center of the pitch into the upper left corner. Almiron earned the free kick after being taken down from behind by Yangel Herrera. It was the second goal scored by Atlanta United on a set piece in the series. It was Almiron’s 13th goal this season and first on a free kick.
NYCFC showed life with a goal in the 45th minute on a free kick. The kick was the result of a foul by Escobar, who also received a yellow card. The goal was scored by Maxime Chanot, who was being marked by Escobar but beat him to the back post to head the free kick past goalkeeper Brad Guzan.
NYCFC kept up the pressure to start the second half. Guzan was forced to make another save when Moralez, who is 5-feet, 3-inches tall, escaped Remedi and cut in front of Robinson for a header.
Guzan dove down to his right to stop a shot by Valentin Castellanos in the 56th minute.
Atlanta United started to break through the gaps in NYCFC’s formation as it poured players forward for the second goal. Almiron put a shot high and wide. Nagbe put a shot over the goal. Almiron was then beaten by Johnson, who came off his line, in a one-on-one chance in the 66th minute.
Martinez capped the scoring in the 83rd minute with a right-footed shot into the upper right corner. Remedi was credited with the assist.
Atlanta United surpassed one million in tickets sold and distributed this season and set a new MLS playoff record with Sunday’s announced attendance of 70,526 for the second leg of the MLS playoff series against NYCFC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The one million total includes all home games (MLS and U.S. Open Cup) hosted by Atlanta United at the stadium. The team had sold and distributed 942,046 tickets before Sunday’s game. Its total for the season after Sunday’s game is 1,012,571.
Atlanta United set the previous MLS playoff record last season with an announced attendance of 66,221 against Columbus on Oct. 26, 2017.
Atlanta United led the league in average attendance (53,002) this season and has the seven most-attended games in league history.
Atlanta United’s and MLS’ top marks
72,243 vs. Seattle on July 15, 2018
72,035 vs. D.C. United on March 11, 2018
72,017 vs. Real Salt Lake on Sept. 22, 2018
71,932 vs. Orlando City on June 30, 2018
71,874 vs. Toronto on Oct. 22, 2017
71,812 vs. Chicago on Oct. 21, 2018
70,425 vs. Orlando City on Sept. 16, 2017
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