Second Half Comeback Leads Atlanta To Physical 2-1 Victory Against Inter Miami

If every match remaining for Atlanta is essentially a playoff game, then this one certainly felt like it.

The intensity was high at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Wednesday night as two playoff hopefuls collided. A second half goal from Josef Martínez was the deciding factor, and Atlanta came out on top 2-1 in a physical matchup against Inter Miami.

It was Atlanta's first come-from-behind victory of the season.

The magnitude of this match for two teams fighting for a postseason berth was certainly felt. Together, they combined for 38 fouls and eight yellow cards. Miami committed 25 fouls and five yellow cards.

"It was a playoff atmosphere,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda. “And I felt that the players understood how to play this type of game.”

Two fouls led to two goals, one for each club.

The first arrived after defender Brek Sheak sent a long ball that Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan had to leave the box to clear. The result was an awkward, high tackle that left Miami midfielder Lewis Morgan on the ground. After video review, Guzan was called for a foul and Miami was awarded a penalty kick.

Forward Gonzalo Higuain rolled a low shot into the corner to put Miami ahead 1-0 in the 32nd minute.

Then for Atlanta, the goal came after Miami defender Kelvin Leerdam was given a yellow card for a foul committed on midfielder Ezequiel Barco. On a direct free kick from the top of the box, striker Luiz Araújo guided a low, trickling ball instead lifting it around or over the wall.

"At the time I took the free kick, I saw the wall was really tall,” Araújo said. “So I decided to go low to surprise the goalkeeper.”

The goal was Araújo’s third of the season and evened the score 1-1 in the 59th minute.

A foul wasn’t the catalyst for Atlanta’s game-winner, however. The play started with a pass intercepted by defender Miles Robinson in Atlanta’s back third. Robinson tapped the ball to defender Alan Franco who sent a long pass to defender Brooks Lennon on the right flank. Lennon hustled to track down the ball, took it down the sideline then passed to Araújo.

Araújo turned and sent a ball for Martinez. Then, Atlanta’s leading scorer did what he does best.

Martínez’s 11th goal of the season put Atlanta ahead 2-1 in the 73rd minute and eventually gave the club its 12th victory. It was Araújo’s fourth assist on the season.

Araújo had what Pineda called a “complete game.” The Brazilian striker finished with one goal, one assist, four shots on goal and three fouls won.

“I’m very happy about this game,” Araújo said. “This is very important for my evolution here and my adaptation process. And the most important thing is getting the three points at home.”

Atlanta was expecting the game against Miami to be difficult. With 38 points in the table, Miami entered the match with its back against the wall needing a win to keep its playoff hopes alive. It arrived at Mercedes-Benz Stadium looking to continue a two-match winning streak where it outscored opponents 8-1.

“These are the kind of games you want to play in and experience,” defender George Bello said. “So I mean I feel like it’s good for us as a team.”

The win gives Atlanta 46 points in the Eastern Conference table and lifts the club to sixth place, just one point away from a top-four spot, at the time the match ended.

For the first half of this match, Atlanta’s frustrations from some of its past few games surfaced. The team played well, controlled the possession, but struggled to have more of a clinical touch in the final third.

The second half, however, was a different story.

At halftime, Pineda brought on midfielder Marcelino Moreno, who scored Atlanta’s goal against NYCFC. With all four members of “BAMM” on the field, the club saw the back of the net twice.

Moreno’s fresh legs gave Atlanta a spark. He found Araújo on a through ball that led to a blocked shot then drew a foul to earn a direct free kick that Franco’s sliding foot just missed – all within the opening minutes of the second half.

Barco returned to action after being suspended from the last match due to a red card he received in the Toronto match on Oct. 16. Inserting him back in the lineup created pace in Atlanta’s attack, even though it struggled to score in the first half.

"We felt that it was too lateral in a lot of the passes, but we could never penetrate the shape,” Pineda said. “And I felt that in the second half that was the adjustment.”

Barco was fouled 12 times, tying the MLS single-match record.

It was imperative tonight that Atlanta’s defense had a good performance to close out the match, especially once it got the lead, and prevent Higuain from breaking the lines. Miami took 11 shots with six on goal. Guzan had six saves, including a twitchy one in the 90th minute when Miami was desperate to score.

“I’m very proud of the reaction of the players,” Pineda said. “They were very mature in the locker room at halftime.”

Atlanta possessed 60 percent of the ball and won 76 duels compared to Miami’s 45. It forced Miami to make 17 clearances.

“We’ve been talking a lot about managing key moments in the game and the mentality in these types of games,” Pineda said. “I think the players put up a lot of energy but also good football.”

Atlanta came into the night leading MLS in total fast breaks, and it created some opportunities that way tonight. One of the best was when, coming off a Miami breakaway, Atlanta countered with a combination between Martinez and Bello. Bello sent the ball inside the box where they had an opportunity, but midfielder Matheus Rossetto’s one-touch shot flew over the goal.

In the 14th minute, the attack had a chance after a save from Guzan. Barco quickly countered and fed the ball to Araújo. Araújo got off a left-footed strike that went wide.

It looked like Atlanta was going to take the lead in the 71st minute. Moreno curled a cross that Martinez put in the back of the net on a long, diving header. But Martinez was called offside.

Tonight, Atlanta did exactly what it needed to do. It created chances and finished enough of them, then it had the mentality to close out the win. As importantly, the club earned three points at home for its fifth win in its last six matches played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

"I feel like it really showed where we’re at as a team at this point of the season,” Bello said. “I feel like a lot of teams are tired right now toward the end of the season, going downwards. I feel like we’re on an upward path though, so it’s good to see.”