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Recap: Atlanta United advances to Eastern Conference Finals with 3-1 win

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FIVE STRIPES = HELL, DON’T THEY?

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York City FC at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Josef Martinez scored twice and Miguel Almiron blasted in the first free kick goal of his Atlanta United career as the Five Stripes advanced to the MLS Cup Eastern Conference Finals with a 3-1 (4-1 aggregate) win over NYCFC in Atlanta.

Atlanta and Martinez struck first. An NYCFC strategy predicated on putting as many bodies on the floor as possible came back to bite them as Ismael Tajouri-Shradi took down Franco Escobar in the box. Martinez, as expected, cool finished the penalty.

Despite the penalty, NYCFC and Atlanta continued showing no hesitancy in sending opposing players to the ground. Almiron especially found himself on the receiving end of heavy contact throughout the first half. In the 42nd minute, he decided he had taken enough.

Almiron intercepted a pass at midfield and tore past an NYCFC defender before being hacked from behind. It took him a moment to get up, but the knock — and a spotty track record on free kicks — didn’t keep him from stepping up to the ball.

“I was talking with Josef right before and it first it was going to be a 1-2, but then I had confidence in myself and took it,” Almiron said. “I’ve scored one free-kick before when I was younger with the academy but this one was a miracle.

With the score now 3-0 on aggregate, Atlanta made it’s first mistake of the tie moments later. A pinballing free kick eventually found the back of the net to set the score at 2-1 in the leg, and 3-1 overall as the teams headed to the dressing room.

Atlanta unsurprisingly elected to drop back and hit NYCFC on the break. Similarly to the match a week ago in Yankee Stadium, NYCFC stuggled to find space against the Atlanta bus. The physical play continued, the Five Stripes limited NYCFC’s chances, wasted time, and, eventually, Josef closed the door.

The 3-1 win capped a relatively remarkable turnaround for Atlanta United from the season-ending and Supporters’ Shield hope-ending lost to Toronto. The team came out and match New York’s physicality like for like and it showed on the scoreboard.

“We just changed the mentality. We were too soft in that game against Toronto. We were tight and we let them get the upper hand early on in that one and couldn’t get back from it,” Michael Parkhurst said. “Right away in New York we set the tone that physically we were going to back down and that we were going to fight. I thought we did that over both games and in the end, we went out and beat a very good team.”

Atlanta United will face the winner of the tie between Columbus Crew and New York Red Bulls later tonight. The first leg of the Eastern Conference Finals is set for Nov. 25. Tata Martino says that the plan over the two break mostly involves staying healthy and resting the players. Both the players and coaches know there’s a lot more work to do.

“This is very important for us but we have to keep our feet on the ground because we know we haven’t won anything yet,” Almiron said. “We’re going to enjoy this but we’re going to keep working hard.”

Meanwhile, fans will CONTINUE TO LOSE THEIR FREAKING MINDS. AN ATLANTA TEAM DIDN’T CHOKE. NOT YET ANYWAY. ENJOY IT WHILE YOU CAN. CONFERENCE FINALS INCOMING, Y’ALL. BE VERY AFRAID. KEEP YOUR HOPE.