Atlanta United needed a big performance to overcome a team they’ve never beaten before. And that’s just what they got on Sunday, overpowering the Red Bulls to the tune of a 3-0 scoreline at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to take a massive step toward MLS Cup.
With Jeff Larentowicz back from injury, his re-introduction to the lineup was the only change Tata Martino made to the team that was so solid in the last round against NYCFC. He slotted in for Miles Robinson, who moved to the bench, ready to come in for defensive reinforcement. The full XI: Brad Guzan (GK), Greg Garza (LB), Leandro González Pirez (CB), Michael Parkhurst (CB), Franco Escobar (RB), Jeff Larentowicz (MID), Eric Remedi (MID), Darlington Nagbe (MID), Miguel Almirón (FWD), Julian Gressel (FWD), Josef Martinez (FWD).
The match started like many of the matchups between these two powerhouse teams have, with Atlanta United dominating possession and the Red Bulls absorbing pressure to launch a counter attack. The first major chance came just after the half hour mark, and Josef Martinez made it count on the scoreboard. Jeff Larentowicz powered forward into the midfield on the right side and floated a beautiful ball to Josef at the far post. Martinez shrugged off his defender and calmly lifted the ball over Robles to send the sold-out crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium into raptures.
That’s where the score stood at the halftime break, but there was a scare for the Five Stripes just out of the half. Bradley Wright-Phillips sent a loose ball in the back of the net, but a Red Bulls defender was interfering with the shot from an offside position. After video review, the goal was disallowed and Atlanta United kept the clean sheet.
With 20 minutes left in the match, the score remained at 1-0 and the match was still very much in the balance. But in the 72nd minute, a beautiful passing play gave Atlanta United the two-goal cushion. An inch-perfect pass from Miguel Almirón set Julian Gressel loose behind the defense, and his left-footed lay-off went all the way across the box to Franco Escobar, who sent a first-time left-footed rocket under the crossbar and inside the roof of the net.
It seemed the match would come to a close with a 2-0 scoreline, but the signal of eight minutes of extra time gave the Five Stripes yet another boost of motivation, knowing a third goal could be in the cards. After hitting one off the post, it was Tito Villalba who made it the dominant 3-0 scoreline, accepting a pass from Franco Escobar outside the box and swerving a low line drive inside the far post, leaving Robles rooted to the spot.
The roar of the 70,016 fans decked out in red, black and gold could be heard from blocks away after that, and the incredible support was all the help Atlanta United needed to see the game out from there. The 3-0 scoreline means any result better than a three-goal defeat in the second leg will send Atlanta United to their first ever MLS Cup. It’s a massive step forward, but there’s still work to do for a Five Stripes squad with silverware on their mind this season.