Just when it seemed D.C. United would trip up the Five Stripes again, when it seemed D.C.’s packed-in defense would frustrate them one more time –– Atlanta United proved their resilience is just as strong as their skill. And in a match with postseason potential, United overcame D.C. in front of the 17s to take over second place in the Eastern Conference.
Atlanta United didn’t change much after Wednesday’s 5-0 rout of the Houston Dynamo, with Franco Escobar’s return from suspension the main change, with Justin Meram coming in place of Dion Pereira on the left wing. The full XI: Brad Guzan (GK), Leandro González Pirez (DEF), Miles Robinson (DEF), Franco Escobar (DEF), Julian Gressel (DEF), Eric Remedi (MID), Darlington Nagbe (MID), Emerson Hyndman (MID), Justin Meram (LW), Josef Martinez (ST), Brandon Vazquez (RW).
It started the way this matchup often starts, with D.C. United looking to sit back and absorb pressure, saving up for a chance at a counter-attack. Atlanta United dominated the possession, and nearly took the lead several times, but Bill Hamid seemed to just get his fingertips behind every one to just keep Atlanta United out of the net. Brad Guzan came up big the other direction to keep out Paul Arriola, who had broken behind the defense for a one-on-one with the goalkeeper. But despite the chances for both sides, the match went into halftime locked up at 0-0.
And that’s what it seemed like it could end as the clock ticked past the 80th minute mark. D.C. United stayed back in a defensive shape, happy to wind the clock down with a road point in hand. And when Josef Martinez sent a rare penalty kick over the bar, it looked like the Five Stripes would fall to an unlucky draw.
But Atlanta United kept fighting, and it was a second half substitute in Pity Martínez who turned the match on its head. And with 89 minutes showing on the clock, he decided the match. It started with an incisive pass from Julian Gressel, who played Darlington Nagbe down the inner right channel. Nagbe took two big strides to get to the byline and popped up a cross –– Pity Martínez was brave with his run, put his body on the line and smashed a header over the line and in for a dramatic winner.
The match was all but over, but there was an exclamation point still to come. It was Pity Martínez again with the game-changing play, holding off his man and finding pace at the halfway line. What he did with it then was straight out of a video game, chipping a pass over the top of the back line and into the path of a streaking Josef Martinez, who was as as cool as ever to chip the goalkeeper and put the match to bed.
The win pushes Atlanta United up into sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference, three points off the lead with a match in hand. They’ll now head west for one of the most anticipated matches of the season, taking on Western Conference leaders LAFC in California. They’ll host the Galaxy the following weekend at Mercedes-Benz Stadium –– make sure you’ve reserved your tickets for that one here.