ATLANTA — With 11 goals in three games, your high-flying Atlanta United sits atop the MLS Eastern Conference after Saturday’s 4-0 win over the Chicago Fire. Josef Martinez scored twice in the second half to take the league’s lead for the Golden Boot with five in 2017. Tito Villalba scored his first of the campaign and the opening goal was an own goal knocked in by Chicago’s Brandon Vincent after a dangerous ball from rookie midfielder Julian Gressel.

The Five Stripes were energized by a second straight sold out Bobby Dodd Stadium and started the match quickly. Martinez forced a turnover in the middle of the field and found Villalba running to his right. A delicate pass between two defenders put Gressel in and his attempted cross was turned into the goal by Vincent in the fourth minute. Things went from bad to worse for Chicago seven minutes later when Johan Kappelhof was red carded for a foul on Martinez. Denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity was the decision made by referee Jose Rivero as Kappelhof was deemed to have been the last defender between Martinez and the Fire’s goal.

Atlanta struggled to find a rhythm after the Chicago red card as the Fire elected to sit deep and try to soak up United’s pressure. Attacking against eight men can be a challenge, and while Atlanta dominated the possession statistics, it failed to create many dangerous chances.

The intensity and tempo returned after the halftime break as Tata Martino’s halftime remarks, along with a frenzied crowd, threw gasoline on the fire. Miguel Almiron found Martinez between Chicago’s two central defenders in the 60th minute. Martinez dribbled around goalkeeper Jorge Bava and doubled Atlanta’s lead. Villalba scored his first of the campaign seven minutes later, pouncing on a deflected cross from Greg Garza and rocketing home a left footed shot from 12 yards out.

Martinez’s second goal is a contender for the MLS Goal of the Week and capped off a fine afternoon for the Venezuelan international. Yamil Asad passed to him between two defenders, and it appeared to be far out of Martinez’s reach. He turned on the speed, touched the ball around Bava again, and finished from an extremely narrow angle on the left side of the goal.

The win, combined with New York Red Bulls’ loss Sunday night, placed the Five Stripes at the top of MLS’ Eastern Conference after three games. The team has a bye week ahead due to the international break and will be back in action on Friday, March 31 against the defending MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field. Our broadcast here on 92.9 The Game will start at 10 p.m.


Manager Tata Martino on what the team will work on during the week off:

“When you have this time to train, you just have to take advantage to keep gaining trust in our style of play and how we want to play, and to keep working on that during the break. And after our time in Seattle, we will know if it was a good or a bad time for the break.”

Captain Michael Parkhurst on the home field advantage Atlanta enjoys:

“The support has been just amazing we’re very fortunate that we’ve got this atmosphere to play in front of, we don’t want to take it for granted. We want to make this a real fortress and a place where teams dread to come to play. Even though players really look forward to playing in this atmosphere, we want to make sure that they come in here fearing us on the field and today was a good foot forward in the right direction”

Midfielder Julian Gressel on if he is surprised about his playing time and performances:

“I know what I can do. I know that I can be out there and I think I deserve it. I think I played all right so far. Obviously, it’s great that he trusts me with a starting role and I still try to learn a lot every day and get better.”

Direct Kicks

  • After Kappelhof’s red card, Chicago manager Veljko Paunovic elected to sub right winger Arturo Alvarez in order to bring in center back Jonathan Campbell. Replacing Kappelhof on the backline was a must, but by removing Alvarez, Chicago resigned itself to playing an ultra-defensive style and could not maintain any possession.
  • As Kyle Tait pointed out on Saturday, Josef Martinez has outscored all but three entire teams in MLS so far this season.
  • While the possession statistics are impressive, do not get carried away with them. Chicago gave possession away and tried to play on the counter. The most impressive of these statistics is that Atlanta completed 84% of its passes in the final third of the field.
  • Julian Gressel might not have found his way onto the scoresheet, but he was one of Atlanta’s most impressive performers. He might be a rookie, but his performances make him look right at home in this talented Atlanta attack.

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