Almiron’s Injury Soils Victory

Atlanta United competes at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the fourth time Sept. 24. The team has yet to lose in their new home. Kevin Kilgour/Sports Editor

Entering their Sunday evening matchup against the Montreal Impact, Atlanta United FC had not suffered a loss since the Aug. 23 1-0 slight against D.C. United. This weekend, they continued their unbeaten streak Sept. 24, notching a 2-0 victory over the visiting Impact.

With the win, Atlanta is now 14-8-7, hopping past Chicago Fire for the No. 3 spot in the Eastern conference standings. Montreal fell to 11-13-6 on the season and sits just outside the playoff picture at the No. 7 spot in the East.

Montreal got the better of Atlanta in their first matchup this season back in April, handing United a 2-1 defeat in Canada. Atlanta needed a stronger performance, particularly on the defensive end, if they were to avenge their loss.

“We know they are a good team,” center back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez explained following Sunday’s victory. “They are a team that has really dangerous players, especially in their midfield moving forward, with some of the best attacking players in the league in [midfielder Ignacio] Piatti and [midfielder Blerim] Dzemaili.”

Much has changed since that April loss. Despite an apparent lack of consistency and experience earlier this season, Atlanta has bloomed into an offensive force in Major League Soccer, with a solid back line and an even better keeper in Brad Guzan. Forward Josef Martinez’s return from a foot contusion injury has been integral to United’s transformation. Since his return in June, Atlanta has enjoyed an 8-2-4 record, bringing them from No. 8 to their current position at No. 3 in the East.

Head Coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino attributed the team’s success to the fans, the Mercedes-Benz stadium and the experience that the team has built through their inaugural season.

43,502 fans filed into Mercedes-Benz Stadium for Sunday’s match. Kevin Kilgour/Sports Editor

“We are playing really well in our new stadium … [and] we have been playing together for a longer period of time now, and we are gaining confidence in our system,” Martino said.

From the opening whistle, the Atlanta attack looked just as potent as it did in the team’s 4-0 shellacking of the visiting Los Angeles Galaxy last Wednesday. United found multiple shot opportunities within the first couple minutes but failed to capitalize.

Despite a dominant start, the Montreal defense formed a wall that United just couldn’t seem to breach, doing just enough to keep Atlanta off the scoreboard. It was not until the 27th minute that United forward Hector “Tito” Villalba finally broke through that wall. Atlanta central midfielder Carlos Carmona assisted the play, stealing the ball from Montreal central midfielder Samuel Piette. Villalba was the beneficiary, speeding around captain and central midfielder Patrice Bernier to the inside before beating left back Deian Boldor with a nutmeg. With the goal in sight, Villalba capped the play with a smashing screamer into the right upper 90, claiming a 1-0 lead for United.

“I wasn’t able to see it because the defender turned and blocked my view, but as soon as I heard the crowd shout I knew it went in,” Villalba said.

Montreal responded with a chance of their own late in the first half. A well-placed through ball found Bernier just past midfield with no one but Guzan standing between him and the net. If not for a sliding block from a chasing Pirez, Montreal likely would have evened the score. Pirez’s stop preserved the 1-0 lead, which Atlanta happily took into halftime.

The second half saw the field open up for both sides: Atlanta midfielder Julian Gressel ripped a look that narrowly missed wide in the 50th minute; Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush made a tremendous save to deny Villalba a second goal in the 60th minute; Guzan preserved Atlanta’s clean sheet with a critical save of his own in the 71st minute.

“At that moment in the game we were kind of on the back foot and under a bit of pressure,” Guzan said. “I was able to get in, get big and make that block. In games like this you’ve got to come up with one or two saves, and tonight it was [that] one.”

With this formidable Atlanta attack, it was only a matter of time until United struck again. In the 73rd minute, veteran midfielder Jeff Larentowicz chested in a cross from Gressel, giving Atlanta a commanding 2-0 lead, which they preserved to the final whistle.

“A shutout is a team effort from front to back,” Larentowicz said. “To win games is great, but to get shutouts and to get it as a team — you don’t get that very often.”

While much of the team was all smiles after the game, there was a tension around the locker room. Midfielder Miguel Almiron left the game in the 16th minute due to what appeared to be a muscle injury. According to an Atlanta United article published Sept. 25, Almiron will miss at least three weeks due to a left hamstring injury.

“We have to move forward,” Larentowicz said. “[Almiron] is obviously the heartbeat of our team. He makes so much happen for us, so to lose him would be difficult.”

This marked Atlanta’s fifth of six consecutive home games in September. The home stand’s conclusion comes against Philadelphia Union Sept. 27. With five games remaining in the regular season, much is still at stake as the United hope to catch No. 2 New York City FC. Only three points separate the two teams, each vying for the all-important first-round playoff bye that goes to the top two teams in each conference.

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