Ezequiel Barco is getting pretty good at those direct free kicks.
The midfielder scored off one in the 18th minute to lead Atlanta to a 3-2 win over D.C. United on Saturday. He scored in similar fashion in the 4-0 win over Cincinnati on Wednesday.
“His mentality is how he approaches those moments with confidence,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said.
Barco is having the best season of his Atlanta United career. He’s now scored seven goals and six assists, both a career-best in his fourth season in Atlanta.
“I’m just really happy,” Barco said. “Everyone has done a great job supporting me – the team, the coaching staff, everyone at the club.”
Barco finished Saturday with one goal and an assist.
Josef Martínez scored the team’s second goal on a through ball from Barco. It was the striker’s 99th goal for the club, counting all competitions.
“Josef is a warrior,” Pineda said.
“What we are doing, rotating a little bit here and there, is working,” Pineda said. “I think we have a fluid team that can work out of different tactical shapes.”
Saturday's starting lineup included a couple of homegrown defenders. George Campbell got his third straight start and George Bello started his first club match since returning from his call-up with the U.S. men’s national team.
Although the defense gave up two goals, it held D.C. United striker Ola Kamara scoreless. The league's leading scorer had five goals in his last three matches coming into Saturday.
“Although we never like to concede goals, what I like was their reaction,” Pineda said. "At 2-1, you could see the mentality of the team. You could see them continue playing, continue fighting, continue winning duels and then they created a few more chances. That's the response I want to see."
D.C. United brought some high pressure early in the match, which led to a couple of slippery moments on Atlanta’s back line. Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan had an active day with three saves, including slapping away D.C. midfielder Russell Canouse’s header from close range in the 45th minute and stopping a dangerous strike in the 61st from midfielder Edison Flores.
Pineda substituted Araújo into the match in the 57th minute to add some aggressiveness to the right side of the attack. And the striker’s speed made an immediate impact. Atlanta scored two of its three goals after he entered the game and created several chances.
“Give him the ball and let him go,” defender Anton Walkes said. "I just sit there and enjoy the show."
The momentum shifted back and forth in the second half as both teams put in more goals. D.C. midfielder Felipe Martins scored in the 75th minute to cut Atlanta's lead to 2-1, which resulted in Martínez at the center spot urging his teammates on.
Martínez almost scored no. 100 in the 84th minute on a header from a cross from Bello and again in the 90th. The potential for Martínez to score his 100th goal with the club in front of a home crowd nearly sent the roof open at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
In the 87th minute, midfielder Marcelino Moreno showed some resilient trickery, getting past several D.C. defenders and sending a ball into the box. Bello finished it off for his first goal of the season and Atlanta reclaimed a two-goal lead.
“In the last 10, 11 games, you’ve seen a big change from this team,” Barco said. “We feel that this team is going to be competitive.”
The matchup between two potential playoff contenders was intense and chippy at times. D.C. United committed 25 fouls, 14 of those coming in the first half, and had four yellow cards. Pineda said he prepares for physical matchups such as this one during training sessions. Sometimes, he doesn't call fouls in practice and lets the play continue to get his team used to playing the ball immediately to gain advantage.
Atlanta United dominated the possession at 61 percent. The team took 16 shots and finished with a passing accuracy of 83 percent.
“Games like this you’ve got to make sure you come out on top,” Walkes said.
In mid-September, the 5-Stripes have already begun to shift to a playoff mentality. Coming into the match, Atlanta trailed D.C. by one point in the standings. Atlanta finished their recent three-game homestand 3-0-0 and will head to Philadelphia with nine more points.
"A perfect week," Pineda said. "Nine points out of nine, scoring 10 goals. I think it was great."
The team has won seven of their last eight games and, as Pineda put it, there's still potential for its players to improve:
"I don't think we're seeing the best Barco yet."