Three matches, thousands of miles travelled, and as the team on top, they got the best from each opponent. But Atlanta United made it three wins out of three with a gutsy, crucial win in their return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday. The victory, along with a an NYCFC draw, means Atlanta have clinched a first round bye in the playoffs – one step closer to the Supporters' Shield.
Tata Martino rotated the squad with the matches piling up this week, and the headline was in the back. Chris McCann and captain Michael Parkhurst were left out of the lineup to rest, and 16-year-old Academy graduate and Homegrown signing George Bello made his first MLS start at left back. The full XI: Brad Guzan (GK), George Bello (LB), Leandro González Pirez (CB), Franco Escobar (CB), Julian Gressel (RB), Jeff Larentowicz (CM), Eric Remedi (CM), Darlington Nagbe (CM), Miguel Almirón (FW), Josef Martinez (FW), Tito Villalba (FW).
If the Five Stripes were suffering from tired legs, they didn’t show it in the opening stages. Miguel Almirón stung Rimando’s palms in the RSL goal, Bello was inches away from his first goal and Tito Villalba slapped a shot off the post all in the first twenty minutes. But the wait was worth it for Julian Gressel’s opener in the 37th minute. Darlington Nagbe played Miguel Almirón down the left flank, who burned down to the byline and sent it across to Julian Gressel at the corner of the box. The German took it down off his chest and blasted an unstoppable volley inside the far post for the opener.
RSL showed signs of life just after halftime, earning their best chance of the match when Jefferson Savarino hit the post after getting behind the Atlanta United back line. But the Five Stripes got the vital insurance goal 15 minutes into the second half. Julian Gressel sent in a throw in from the right wing to Josef Martinez at the top of the box, but the Venezuelan striker was clever to dummy the ball and let it go through to Tito Villalba. The Argentine’s shot was low and hard, but hit off the post again –– only to bounce off the goalkeeper’s back and in for the crucial second goal.
Bello’s stellar first start came to an end twelve minutes later, with Venezuelan left back José Hernández coming on in his place for his first MLS appearance. Ezequiel Barco and Miles Robinson came on to bring fresh legs and finish the match off. Brad Guzan came up with a big save to keep his eighth clean sheet in tact, and Atlanta finished off it’s third win in a week comfortably with a 2-0 scoreline.
“The second goal helped a lot,” man of the match Julian Gressel said after the match. “It’s been a tough week, and I just kept telling myself ’20 more, 15 more, 10 more,’ that’s all it takes. Now we get a few days off and a nice week to prepare for the Red Bulls.”
It was another unforgettable night for the 72,017 fans decked out in red, black and gold for the night. The win keeps Atlanta United four points clear on top of the Supporters’ Shield standings ahead of next weekend’s massive road match against the New York Red Bulls. They’ll be back in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 6th to face the New England Revolution as the quest for the Supporters’ Shield continues. Make sure you’re there to roar them on by reserving your tickets here.