Stellar goalkeeping and a goal worthy of winning any game helped Atlanta United take round one against Eastern conference rivals Orlando City.
As usual the first headline came with the starting lineups, with U.S. international Brad Guzan making his first start in goal for Atlanta United. On the other end, striker Josef was Martinez forced out with a right foot contusion – he’s listed as day-to-day moving forward – with Julian Gressel coming into the lineup. The full starting XI: Brad Guzan (GK), Greg Garza (LB), Leandro González Pirez (CB), Michael Parkhurst (CB), Anton Walkes (RB), Jeff Larentowicz (CM), Carlos Carmona (CM), Yamil Asad (LW), Miguel Almirón (CAM), Julian Gressel (RW), Tito Villalba (ST).
The opening stages were tense, with both sides doing well to break up each other’s passing flow. Kaká led a few driving counterattacks through the midfield, but strikers Giles Barnes and Carlos Rivas were unable to convert them into shots on target. Meanwhile Atlanta dominated possession – with nearly two thirds of it through the first half – and found some cracks in the Orlando defense, but couldn’t get past Joe Bendik in the Orlando goal.
Orlando’s best chance came just before the 40th minute mark, with Jonathan Spector getting a head to a free kick in the box. But Brad Guzan made an instant impression on his new fans by getting down quickly to keep it out.
Atlanta United almost went into the halftime with the lead. In the 45th minute, Miguel Almirón found a streaking Tito Villalba with a perfectly-weighted ball behind the defense. Villalba returned the favor to Almirón at the top of the box who had a yard of space, but his shot wasn’t strong enough to beat the Orlando goalkeeper and the half ended 0-0.
The second half was much of the same, with both teams grinding out a tough midfield battle with chances at a premium. But after another crucial save from Guzan to keep them level, Atanta United grew into the game and a sustained period of pressure in the final moments resulted in an absolute missile of a game-winning goal. A throw-in routine from the left side fell to Tito Villalba, who found a pocket of space about 35 yards from goal and sent an unstoppable drive past the Orlando goalkeeper and into the top corner.
Atlanta was able to keep the Orlando attack at arm’s length for the final ten minutes and hold out for an impressive road win. The three points pulls the red, black and gold within one point of New York City FC in third place in the Eastern Conference standings. They return to Atlanta next weekend to face Orlando City for the second consecutive match in the team’s final match at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Tickets are sold out, but fans can still purchase Ticketmaster Verified Resale tickets here.