Atlanta United entered Decision Day with a simple task. Get out of Cincinnati with a win, draw or loss by fewer than eight goals, and the club would secure a spot in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs.
On Sunday, Atlanta United beat FC Cincinnati 2-1 at TQL Stadium to gain three points on Decision Day and secure its fourth trip to the MLS Cup Playoffs in club history.
It was the second time Atlanta came from behind to win in four matches, and the second all-time come-from-behind road win in club history.
The club ends the regular season in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. A win made it possible for Atlanta to move into the conference’s top four and host in round one. However, New York City FC finished Decision Day with a 1-1 draw against Philadelphia to hold onto a top four spot.
Atlanta’s game-winner on Sunday came from none other than the club’s leading scorer, Josef Martínez. In the 79th minute, a deflected ball sailed high into the air. The striker put his laces on the ball and, with one touch, placed a gorgeous, controlled shot into the upper left corner to up Atlanta ahead 2-1.
“I don’t know where that goal came from,” Martínez said. “But I just remembered after that first save he’d made on me, it was a really good chance but he made that save. So, we just had to keep trying to get that goal. And I even said it to coach on the sidelines that it was so important for us to get that goal.”
Head coach Gonzalo Pineda called Martínez’s goal one of the most beautiful goals he’s ever seen.
“I’m just very, very happy for him because, again, it was a very hard season for him personally, individually with the injuries,” Pineda said. “Finishing the season with our last great goal, it’s very encouraging for him.”
Cincinnati scored first on the night, the goal arriving in the 21st minute. Atlanta gave Zico Bailey a little too much room, and the defender cracked a left-footed shot that rolled past goalkeeper Brad Guzan into the left corner.
Midfielder Luciano Acosta was credited with the assist.
Defender of the Year candidate Miles Robinson was responsible for Atlanta’s equalizer in the 70th minute. Robinson’s first career MLS goal came on a header at the center of the box on a cross from midfielder Ezequiel Barco following a corner kick.
Barco was credited with the assist, his sixth of the season.
“The assistants were working yesterday at the training facility with the players on a few options, and credit to them and the players we scored on a set piece,” Pineda said.
At halftime, Pineda brought on forward Jake Mulraney for defender Anton Walkes, and the addition of an attacker seemed to increase Atlanta’s urgency. The change had an immediate impact, and the team had two promising opportunities at goal in the first five minutes of the second half.
“I thought we did a fantastic job at halftime of altering not only our tactics but altering our mentality,” Guzan said.
Atlanta continued knocking on the door in the second half. A minute later, striker Luiz Araújo sent a low cross across the box that Martínez got a foot on, but the shot was blocked by Cincinnati goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer. Then, Robinson sent a long ball to Mulraney in the final third. Mulraney used his chest to bring down the ball and got a shot off that went high.
In the 56th minute, Atlanta pressured and Barco got his foot on the ball twice, but both shots were blocked. Then, a pass in the 63rd minute from Barco led to an off-balance shot by Martínez.
Atlanta finished the match with 18 shots, 13 of those came in the second half.
“We created many, many chances, and we scored two goals that put us in a very good position,” Pineda said. “So that’s what changed, a little bit of the tactics and a little bit of the mentality.”
Cincinnati forced Guzan to be active early. Guzan made a huge save in the third minute when striker Brandon Vázquez dropped a pass back to Acosta in the box.
Midfielder Haris Medunjanin had a few dangerous looks in the first half. First, on a shot that rolled wide in the 10th minute. Later in the 36th, he hit a rope on one touch but Guzan saved it.
A few times, especially in the first half, Atlanta was just one clean pass away from a shot on goal. On a good opportunity in the first half, Barco outran a group of Cincinnati defenders in what looked like a fast break opportunity. However, he made a poor pass to his right that was intercepted and Martínez was left open on Barco’s left.
Atlanta had a great chance in the 17th minute when Araújo switched the ball and found a wide open George Bello inside the box on the left side. But Cincinnati closed out quickly and Bello didn’t get a shot off.
Vermeer made a point-blank save in 31st minute on a direct free kick. Walkes got his head on service from Barco’s direct free kick, but the header did not have enough precision. Then, Araújo was a step away from a shot in the 45th minute. Barco slipped a near-perfect ball to the striker on a diagonal run, but Vermeer beat the striker to the ball by a step.
Midfielder Ronald Hernández made the start as a right wingback for Atlanta. Hernández was recently called up to join Venezuela in the World Cup qualifying matches in November. Midfielder Franco Ibarra made his second straight start. Hernández and Ibarra were subbed off in the 68th minute for midfielder Jürgen Damm and defender Brooks Lennon.
There were times during 2021 when the MLS Cup Playoffs didn’t seem like a realistic possibility for Atlanta United. But the club surged in the season’s second half and earned more points since the middle of July than any team in the Eastern Conference except New England.
After the match, Pineda alluded to the way the team thrived in the second half of the season. Last time his team came to TQL Stadium in July, it had 13 points in 13 games. In the 21 games since, the team gained 38 points.
“That‘s pretty impressive,” Pineda said. “It’s a testament of the mentality of the team in the second half of the season, and it’s so great to them.”
Up next, Atlanta United takes on NYCFC in the first round of the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. Visit atlutd.com/playoffs for all the content for the MLS Cup Playoffs.