Villalba steps up again in striker role against Orlando City

When Atlanta United head coach Tata Martino has his full arsenal at his disposal, he has always started Tito Villalba in his natural wing position. But with first-choice striker Josef Martinez out with injury, Villalba continues to step up in big moments in the center forward position, providing key goals in the past two matches to help secure four points against Orlando City. It’s something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by his head coach.

“[Tito] is our goal scorer at the moment,” Coach Martino said through a translator after Sunday’s game. “Through his goals, through Miguel (Almirón’s) goals and through assists by Julian (Gressel) or Yamil (Asad), we are doing our best to fill in during Josef (Martinez’s) absence. That is what is most important for the team.”

Last week, Villalba’s MLS Goal of the Week winner was an unstoppable long-range game-winner in the 86th minute. This week it was a perfectly-timed run in stoppage time, another piece of late-game heroics to turn a frustrating loss into a valuable point. Tito was quick to share the spotlight after another game-changing performance.

“I made a diagonal run but Yamil (Asad) did everything,” Villalba said through a translator. “It’s been my moment and I’m taking advantage of it but I have to thank the coaching staff for all of the help that they’ve been giving me, showing me things on film and I’m just taking advantage of it.”

Saturday’s goal was Tito’s team-best tenth goal of the season, and his coach – and his fans – are noticing his performance. But even opponents singled out his play for praise after the game.

“He’s a great player,” said Orlando City defender Danny Toia. “He makes great runs in between the center backs and it is hard to keep track of him sometimes. He knows how to make those runs and cause havoc up top. Credit to him.”

In the excitement of Saturday’s late comeback, many fans said it was a draw that felt like a win. But Villalba’s competitive nature was on full display after the game, making it clear that he is not satisfied and is hungry for more.

“I think it feels like a loss, actually, because we had so many chances to score,” Villalba said. “We just have to keep working and taking advantage of those opportunities. The team was really motivated to find that goal because we had a lot of chances, especially in the first half. We just kept working on it and we were able to find it in the last minute.”

“One way to look at it is: we scored a goal in extra time,” said Coach Martino after the game. “So, in that sense, it feels good. But on the other hand, I think we controlled the game and we had all of the development in the game. So in that sense it is like a loss.”

Villalba and company will have their chance to get back to winning ways this weekend, as they head to Kansas to face off with Western Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City. They’ll play two more road games against Eastern Conference opponents before coming back to Atlanta to host FC Dallas in the first ever game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 10th. Make sure you have a spot for that historic night by getting your ticket here.