Scoring Flurry Propels United Over New York City FC

Atlanta fans unfurl a banner proclaiming the superiority of peaches over apples. Kevin Kilgour/Sports Editor

With their home match against New York City FC (NYCFC) May 28, Atlanta United FC capitalized on an opportunity for redemption after a 3-1 loss May 7 in New York. Atlanta’s emphatic 3-1 win at Bobby Dodd Stadium over the No. 3 team in the East standings brings their season record to 5-4-3 and brings them to No. 7 in the East with 18 points.

Now 12 games into their 34-game season, consistency has been the toughest hurdle for this Atlanta team, which started the season with the third youngest roster in the MLS. At 4-4-3, United has shown flashes of offensive brilliance interspersed with periods of carelessness on the ball and poor communication among the defensive line. That has lead to unpredictable results, from a 4-0 win March 18 over the current No. 2 team in the East, the Chicago Fire, to a 3-1 home loss against last place D.C. United April 30.

“[Major League Soccer] is a bit of a roller coaster,” technical director and former U.S. Men’s National Team captain Carlos Bocanegra said. “For an expansion team, we are going to have to do a good job of not getting too high after this win.”

In their May 20 match, United exploded offensively with four goals in a victory over the visiting Houston Dynamo. Accounting for the strong performance in their prior home match, hopes were high that Atlanta could keep the wheels turning against NYCFC.

“Our game in New York City was our biggest disappointment of the year and we wanted to atone for that tonight,” center defender and team captain Michael Parkhurst said.

Given the absence of injured Atlanta forward Josef Martinez and Head Coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who was suspended due to his ejection against Houston, Sunday’s matchup was set to be a battle of two attackers: Atlanta’s Miguel Almiron, whose hat trick against Houston earned him MLS Player of the Week honors, and NYCFC’s David Villa, the former World Cup Champion from Spain and last year’s MLS MVP.

“[Villa] is so crafty,” Parkhurst said. “He is a lot faster than you think. He just needs to get you a little off balance and he’s by you.”

Forward Yamil Asad lets loose a shot just outside the box. Kevin Kilgour/Sports Editor

Early on, Atlanta showed determination to stretch the NYCFC defense, sending cross-pitch long balls as often as they could, while NYCFC exposed Atlanta’s high back line with a few well-placed through balls. Neither team would capitalize until the 16th minute, when Almiron struck.

Controlling the ball in the midfield, Almiron threaded a ball ahead to midfielder Julian Gressel. Gressel kindly returned the favor, skipping a difficult pass to a trailing Almiron, who calmly took a touch before drilling a shot just below the outstretched arm of NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

“[Almiron] brings speed, intelligence, and he is a really complete player,” forward Hector Villalba said. “He is able to bring a lot to our game: we are able to play quick touches and play the ball into space.”

It was at this point that Atlanta opened the floodgates, scoring all three of their goals in a seven-minute flurry. Three minutes after Almiron’s strike, Villalba received a through ball at the corner of the box from midfielder Yamil Asad. Villalba took a strong touch inside before blasting a screamer to the opposite post that easily beat Johnson for a 2-0 lead.

The onslaught resumed in the 23rd minute when Gressel bodied NYCFC defender Alexander Callens off the ball near the opposition’s end line. Gressel then dribbled inside before laying off another trailing pass to Almiron, whose sliding shot found its way into the opposite corner of the NYCFC goal. Almiron’s second goal, a mirror image of his first, gave Atlanta a 3-0 lead and had fans singing with glee just 25 minutes into the match.

“Our pressure up front was fantastic,” Parkhurst said. “When their guys don’t have time to pick up their heads, it makes [the defensive line’s] life a whole lot easier.”

With victory in sight, the remainder of the match was fraught with chippy play, but Atlanta handled the pressure well. A bending cross from NYCFC defender Ben Sweat found the foot of a cutting forward Jack Harrison for NYCFC’s lone goal in the 71st minute, but there was little panic in the Atlanta side. Atlanta goalkeeper (and Decatur native) Alec Kann produced a solid performance, making the necessary saves and helping set up the Atlanta attack with a keen distributive eye.

“We talk about the attackers doing so well and scoring a lot of goals, but it starts with [Kann], the defenders and the midfielders distributing it out up top so that these guys can score,” Bocanegra said.

With two of the match’s goals to his name, Almiron was given player of the game honors, but Gressel was equally deserving. His pressure, strength on the ball and ability to power through tough tackles shone more so in this game than it has all season and makes him yet another weapon opponents must address if they wish to slow down the Atlanta attack.

“I’m a versatile player,” Gressel said. “I am confident on the ball and want it at my feet. It is different kinds of things that set me apart from other players … [in this way] you find your way within the system and within the team.”

With two straight home wins under its belt, Atlanta will take to the road for a match against Vancouver Whitecaps FC (5-5-1) June 3. United will then visit the Chicago Fire (7-3-3) June 10 before returning for their next home game against the Columbus Crew (6-7-1) June 17.

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