Atlanta United FC aren’t in the MLS Cup Playoffs yet - they would be the first expansion team since Seattle Sounders FC made it in 2009 - but a win against Montreal Impact has them a hair away from the postseason. Tito Villalba and Jeff Larentowicz had a goal each as Atlanta defeated Montreal 2-0 in front of a sellout crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta are now unbeaten in their last eleven at home, have taken 14 of a possible 18 points in their last six matches overall, and can clinch a playoff spot with a victory against the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday.
Atlanta enjoyed two early chances as they looked to get in front just minutes into the contest, and would have gotten there if not for a sharp save by Evan Bush on Yamil Asad inside the match’s first minute. Bush was called upon again a little later as he kept an own goal out of the net around the 10th minute. Things took a turn in the 17th minute - after Miguel Almiron came up lame following a great run down the right side, Tata Martino was forced to substitute Julian Gressel and remove his attacking midfielder.
In the 28th minute, though, Tito Villalba took a deflected ball off of Patrice Bernier in front of the Montreal net, shook off Deian Boldor and let loose a vicious strike to give Atlanta a 1-0 lead to reignite a crowd that had the air taken off of it after the Almiron injury. Montreal could have tied it up in the 41st minute if not for an unbelievable tackle in the box by Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, and it would go to the half with Atlanta in front.
Both teams had chances to find the first goal of the second half; Anthony Jackson-Hamel mishandled a ball on the box for Montreal, while Gressel came close with his 51st minute shot that sailed just to the right of goal. Atlanta came tantalizingly close to making it 2-0 in the 60th minute as dazzling ball handling by Josef Martinez led to a Villalba shot that was stopped brilliantly by Bush. Meanwhile, Montreal’s best chance of the night came in the 72nd minute as Michael Salazar’s one-on-one attempt was stopped beautifully by Brad Guzan.
That was foreshadowing for what would happen in the 73rd minute: Jeff Larentowicz found himself in front of Bush on a ball sent in by Gressel and saw it deflect off his chest past Bush for his first goal in an Atlanta uniform. It would turn out to be the pivotal goal as the defense held on for its fourth clean sheet in five matches.
“(Making the playoffs) has been our goal all year,” Larentowicz said afterwards. “For us, it was a team goal from the get go to not use ‘expansion team’ as an excuse. The job’s not done yet, but we’re happy with what we’ve been able to do.”
“You could see in the second half when Montreal was starting to get some momentum, our fans really stepped up,” said coach Tata Martino. “We’ve been playing together for a longer period of time now and we’re gaining more confidence in our system.”
The big stop by Guzan on Salazar arguably was a turning point in the match. With Montreal holding a measure of momentum and desperate for a result to help keep themselves in the playoff hunt, it was the U.S. national’s save that would eventually set up Larentowicz’ goal to ice it.
“At the end of the day, as a goalkeeper you want to make as many saves as you can,” Guzan said. “At that moment in the game, we were kind of on the back foot. They get in, and I’m able to make myself big and get the block. Couple of minutes later, we go down and score. We’ll take it and move on and move forward to Wednesday.”
Atlanta, who are now ten points clear of the Impact, will host the Philadelphia Union at 7pm on Wednesday with an opportunity to punch their ticket into the playoffs.