Eastern table leaders, No. 1 New York City FC (NYCFC) (5-2-0) and No. 2 Atlanta United FC (4-1-1), split a matchup of surprises and drama 2-2 at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium on April 15. Despite Atlanta’s disastrous season opener loss to the Houston Dynamo, both teams survived the weekend thriller to strengthen their ever-expanding undefeated streaks.
In Atlanta’s inaugural 2017 season, NYCFC defeated United 3-1 with a second-half flurry on May 7. The Five Stripes answered with their own redemptive 3-1 victory over New York four weeks later.
“The danger that [New York] has and just how well organized they are from the back four, from them having a national team goalie — it felt like a national team game,” Atlanta left back Greg Garza said.
Indeed, both teams’ high energy became clear within the first 13 minutes of play. Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan made two critical saves in the first half, paving the way for the team’s lead-defining goal from Garza off an assist from midfielder Miguel Almiron in the 29th minute.
NYCFC’s tenacious efforts came to fruition when forward David Villa, who sat out the last three games due to injury, made an unexpected appearance in the 35th minute to sub in for injured attacking midfielder Ismael Tajouri. After only three minutes on the pitch and a foul off Atlanta team captain and defender Michael Parkhurst, Villa evened the score 1-1 with a well-placed penalty kick in the bottom left corner.
“The disappointing thing for us is … we ushered [Villa] across the top of box and away from goal, and we did the hard work there,” Guzan said. “Then with one pass, we never really got pressure to the ball. … With one touch and one swing of the leg, he is punishing us.”
The drama unfolded later on in the first half when Atlanta center midfielder Darlington Nagbe netted a through ball from a brilliant offensive play between forward Josef Martinez and midfielder Julian Gressel. Gressel found Nagbe waiting just outside the top of the box in the 41st minute.
But the goal was not in the cards for United. After a video review, the verdict was an offsides call on Martinez, thus eliminating Atlanta’s chance of a smooth victory.
“I think it was a goal,” Atlanta Head Coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said of the reversed call.
Well into the second half, midfielder Chris McCann pushed Atlanta ahead with a header goal assisted by Almiron, who chipped behind to McCann in the 56th minute.
“Miguel is a clever player sometimes,” McCann said. “He picked out a beautiful pass. I tried to check my run and he picked me out, and luckily enough [the ball] went in.”
In the 70th minute, Atlanta pulled their trump card: attacking midfielder Ezequiel Barco. The much-anticipated “Argentine wonderkid” made his MLS debut that night to sub in for Kevin Kratz, after months of training alongside the team and signing the most expensive deal in MLS history.
“[Barco] was dynamic,” Martino said. “[But] I thought he was missing a bit in his precision.”
In fact, the 19-year-old’s star ability wasn’t enough to push Atlanta over the top as NYCFC’s Alexander Ring scored the equalizer goal — his first in the MLS — in the 73rd minute. A drop pass from Villa at the top of the box set up a clear shot for Ring’s execution, sending the ball into the net off the Atlanta crossbar.
“I’m happy to get the debut,” Barco said. “But I’m sad with the result.”
The 2-2 result squashed any hopes Atlanta fans had of squeezing into the No. 2 spot on the MLS leaderboard, but Martino saw it as a stepping stone for more difficult matches ahead.
“We can use everything from tonight,” Martino said. “It’s possible that this was the best game we have played since I’ve been here.”
NYCFC may not have maintained their beloved undefeated streak if not for the rescue goals of Villa and Ring, as Atlanta seemed to hold the upper hand in both the offense and the defense.
“We are a team that is intense for 90 minutes,” Martino said. “We are creating a lot of scoring chances. Today, you have the left back and the left center back scoring goals. So I think we are still doing things well.”
Atlanta aims to extend their undefeated streak on the road against the LA Galaxy (3-1-2) on April 21, their second meeting after a decisive 4-0 Atlanta victory at home last season on Sept. 20, 2017.
Kevin Kilgour (16Ox, 18B) contributed reporting.