In the 77th minute in Sunday’s 3-0 win over the New York Red Bulls, Tata Martino made his first substitution. You could feel it coming given how Martino usually strategizes when his team has a lead the likes of 2-0. Hector Villalba came on for goalscorer Josef Martinez. The move was tactical given how Martino wanted to wind the game down, but also just football strategy giving Josef some needed rest after traveling around the world the week prior.
Six minutes later in the 83rd minute, the second sub came on for United. Chris McCann replaced a slightly knocked up Greg Garza. The move was a partially a defensive play and partially an injury preventing move given Garza’s intense runs up the flank and the knock he had taken earlier in the match.
The final substitution came another three minutes later and featured Ezequiel Barco coming on for Miguel Almiron. The final move in what was supposed to be Atlanta United shutting it down and holding onto the fantastic feat of holding New York away-goalless in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Finals.
What it turned out to be, as those who watch Atlanta United play on a regular basis know, was a team that already had a stunning counter-attack bolstering its counter-attack late in a match through their bench. Now not only were they still effectively absorbing the Red Bulls attempts at grabbing an away goal, but they also had fresh legs up front to deliver breakneck counter-attacks.
When Hector Villalba scored the third and final goal in stoppage time, it didn’t feel surprising. The team had already just missed a couple of amazing chances on the break that were leading up to the third goal. It wasn’t shocking simply because of how United had been playing since its first sub in the 77th minute. The goal felt inevitable because Atlanta had been creating better chances late in the match than their opponents who desperately needed an away goal.
When your version of shutting it down is bringing on two fresh-legged attackers and trust your existing defense this team is what happens. Martino’s ability you continue attacking late in matches is one key thing that set United apart late in the first leg on Sunday. Their relentlessness when they stopped the Red Bulls late not only sucked up time but further exhausted a Red Bulls side that had been hitting the brick wall of Martino’s defensive setup all night.
That third and final goal on Sunday night makes the life of the Red Bulls incredibly difficult in the second leg. It limits their margin of error and without an away goal makes their life a living nightmare. They have to be remarkably better offensively and stifle the United attack that shredded them even in the midst of playing “defensively” as the game’s final minutes ticked by.