It’s been a seasons of firsts for Atlanta United. The first match. The first goal. The first (of many) home sellouts. But Wednesday was perhaps more special than them all as Atlanta United made history as the third expansion team ever to make the playoffs with a dominant 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Union.
With Miguel Almirón sidelined with injury, head coach Tata Martino made a few changes to his starting lineup. Captain Michael Parkhurst received a night’s rest – with Jeff Larentowicz shifting back to the back line – and Julian Gressel joined Kevin Kratz in the midfield for a German connection in the center of the park. The full lineup: Brad Guzan (GK), Chris McCann (LB), Leandro González Pirez (CB), Jeff Larentowicz (CB), Anton Walkes (RB), Carlos Carmona (CM), Kevin Kratz (CM), Yamil Asad (LW), Julian Gressel (CAM), Tito Villalba (RW), Josef Martinez (ST).
Atlanta United came out with a point to prove, dominating possession and holding Philadelphia without a single shot in the first half. And it was rookie Julian Gressel who was first to jump on his starting chance, just before the half hour mark. Pirez played a strong low ball up the middle to Julian Gressel, who showed off his strength to hold off a defender, pace to beat another, and intelligence to hit it with the outside of the boot and past the goalkeeper inside the far post.
Gressel turned from scorer to provider just five minutes later. It started with Pirez again, playing it forward to Tito Villalba, who first-timed it into the path of Gressel in the pocket in front of the center backs. Gressel continued the play to Josef Martinez, who turned on the afterburners to leave his defender behind and drill a low shot inside the far post.
Philadelphia was able to gain a slight foothold in the second half, but Brad Guzan was up to the pressure, keeping the Union offense at a comfortable distance for much of the game. And just before the final whistle, Atlanta United fans were sent into full party mode. Tito Villalba played a beautiful long through ball past the defense and into the path of second-half substitute Jacob Peterson, who rounded the goalkeeper and calmly slotted home the third goal of the night.
It was comfortable from there, as yet another sellout crowd of 43,006 Five Stripes fans roared their heroes on through the final minutes. As the final whistle blew, the crowd erupted as the team’s destiny was sealed. Atlanta United had clinched a playoff berth in its inaugural season.
It was an unforgettable night for the expansion side, but the players don’t have much time to celebrate, with yet another quick turnaround ahead. The team will look to continue their climb up the Eastern Conference Standings to improve their playoff seed as they travel to Massachusetts to face the Revolution on Saturday. The team will be back in Atlanta on Tuesday as they face Minnesota United at the fortress that is Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Tickets are still available for that one, make sure you’ve reserved your spot here.