Atlanta United defeated Charleston Battery, 2-1, Saturday night at MUSC Health Stadium to wrap up the 2017 Carolina Challenge Cup, as well as Atlanta’s inaugural preseason. Tito Villalba scored the game-winning goal in the 90th minute after collecting a cross from Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu. Atlanta finished preseason with a 3-1-0 record and will open the 2017 MLS Regular Season on Sunday, March 5 against New York Red Bulls at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Tickets for the home opener in Atlanta are selling quickly. You can secure your seat to the historic match here.
“We had the chance to see how our competitors play up close and how they compete,” Atlanta United head coach Gerardo Martino said about preseason. “We started 30 days ago and it’s not like we played together last season. We started now, and it’s still a short time, but I think we’ll arrive in good condition next weekend.”
For the fourth straight game, Atlanta opened the game with an early goal, this time courtesy of Yamil Asad. The young Argentine headed home a cross from Mikey Ambrose in the fourth minute for his second goal of preseason. The goal served as the fourth straight game that Atlanta has scored a goal in the first 10 minutes.
Charleston tied the match just before halftime with current Atlanta United forward Romario Williams striking one past Kyle Reynish from about 22 yards out. Williams has spent the majority of preseason on international duty with the Jamaican National Team.
“The first half was very good,” Martino said. “We circulated the ball really well, and we were precise. I liked it a lot.”
Atlanta made a pair of changes at halftime with Harrison Heath and Brandon Vazquez coming on for Julian Gressel and Yamil Asad, respectively. After even play for about the first 20 minutes, Atlanta started to pile on the pressure. Kevin Kratz took a free kick in the 65th minute that perfectly curled over the wall and toward the near post, forcing Charleston goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper to make a diving save. Cooper had spent part of preseason with Atlanta on trial.
About 10 minutes later, Andrew Carleton continued his spirited day with back-to-back chances over the span of about 90 seconds. In the 74th minute, he deftly took a touch from an Anton Walkes’ clearance around midfield, then spun and made sprawling run toward the box before just blasting one over the bar. Seconds later, Carleton again took a Charleston defender one-on-one before just narrowly missing his attempted shot at the near post.
Martino elected to bring on a few starters over the final 10 minutes, including Almiron, Villalba, Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz. The moves paid off. During the final minute of the regular time, Wheeler-Omiunu found space along the right side and crossed a ball for Villalba. In the box, Villalba recollected the cross and had just enough space to easily beat the goalkeeper in the upper left corner.
“The first half, I think we kind of put on a clinic, we were the better team by far. I thought the only thing we could have done better was put away our chances,” said defender Mark Bloom, who served as the team captain on Saturday. “In the second half, we kind of let it slip away a little bit. Maybe we got a little bit tired and got a little bit careless at times; maybe we got a little too confident trying to play out of the back. But that’s what preseason is for – we tried to play through it. I thought it was a good representation of our character to score that goal.”
Atlanta finished the Charleston Challenge Cup with two wins and one loss, good for 6 points. Columbus Crew SC won the tournament earlier in the day after beating Seattle Sounders, giving Crew SC 7 points. Atlanta scored 11 goals over preseason, with Josef Martinez leading the way (4), followed by Villalba (3), Asad (2), Almiron (1) and Carleton (1).