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RECAP: Atlanta United takes a 3-0 lead into the second leg of the Conference Finals


MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

After failing to beat New York Red Bulls in their first four attempts, Atlanta United thwacked Chris Armas’s side in a stunning 3-0 home win in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Atlanta looked in control from the start. The Five Stripes consistently found space on the wings and were able to send multiple crosses towards Martinez. They struggled to find the Venezuelan striker initially, but broke through in the 32nd minute when american hero Jeff Larentowicz found Martinez in the six-yard-box. Martinez took his time as Red Bulls centerback, Tim Parker attempted to pick his dignity up off the floor after missing the cross by no less than 40 feet, and keeper, Luis Robles ran out to meet him. Josef coolly finished to give Atlanta United the first goal of the tie, even though he wasn’t entirely sure how he did it.

“If you’re asking me how I scored, I don’t know,” Martinez said. “If I got the chance again I’m not sure how I would handle it.”

Atlanta took the 1-0 lead into the half.

A lot of that 1-0 lead probably had to do with two things:

  1. Big Boi was in attendance
  2. This -

The second half started...less well.

A free kick into the box bounced to Bradley Wright-Phillips who finished a classic Red Bulls’ cluster goal to make it 1-1.

At least for a moment.

The play was reviewed and the goal disallowed as a Red Bulls player was deemed offside and in a position to obstruct the view of Brad Guzan.

With the reversal of fortune looming large, Atlanta and Escobar took the opportunity to separate themselves even further from Red Bulls.

Escobar’s goal capped a massive game for the young Argentine. Escobar was seemingly everywhere on the pitch, winning talks and then sprinting down the wing to aid the attack. There was no question who the man of the match was when the final whistle blew, and his teammates and manager were highly complimentary of a player that played his best game for the team at the best possible time.

“When we wanted to sign Franco, this is the player we wanted to sign — the Franco we’ve seen the last five or six games,” Martino said. “He’s adapted very well to the position, he’s able to get forward, he’s versatile, he’s a physical player and he’s scored two goals now in the last few games for us that were very important.”

“Franco was a deserved man of the match for us,” Michael Parkhurst said. “I thought the was immense for us. He won so many 50-50 balls for us and when you play against the Red Bulls you have to win those 50-50’s. He was so important for us though. He got the goal for us, so a massive performance for him.”

Fortunately, Escobar’s goal didn’t signal the end of the night for the Five Stripes on the scoreboard. What appeared to be a curse turned into a blessing. Eight minutes of added time felt like a decision that would surely gift Red Bulls time to snag a crucial away goal. Instead, it allowed the newly substituted Tito Villalba to wreak havoc.

Villalba’s goal cemented a massive win over a team that had fathered Atlanta in the past.

“The first thing we can say is that we were finally able to beat them,” Tata Martino said. I think the biggest change was that we knew we had to match the intensity of Red Bulls. In the last game that we played there we weren’t able to and that was the biggest difference. In the other matches we couldn’t get a result for different reasons. I think we knew that intensity was the key for tonight though.”

Atlanta now heads to New York for the deciding match of the tie with a three goal lead in tow. Anything less than three goals means a win for Atlanta. An away goal means that Red Bulls would have to score five goals against a team that has only been scored on once in three playoff games. In short: Atlanta could totally still mess this up, but it would be really, really hard.

“It doesn’t have to be pretty,” Parkhurst said. “It’s a real big change from how we’ve done things in the regular season. We were playing out of the back and connecting passes, but it’s not the most important thing to focus on here. The most important thing is winning games and we’re going to do whatever we can to do that.”

Kickoff is set for 7:30 on Thursday at Red Bull Arena. Please, please don’t choke.