Atlanta United cruised to a 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake — their third win in the last eight days — as Julian Gressel bagged a goal and an assist while 16-year-old George Bello put in a phenomenal shift in his first-career start.
Atlanta United controlled the first half from the outset. The Five Stripes out-shot RSL 8-1, while the wing back duo of Bello and Gressel thrived.
Bello completed each and every one of his passes and provided a much needed shock of pace on the left. Gressel provided the half’s only goal.
A charging run to the endline from Miguel Almiron ended in a cross that somehow found Gressel. Gressel matched Almiron’s abandon with cool. The super draft pick took the ball down with his chest and and sent a half-volley flying into the net.
In typical fashion, Gressel spoke of the spectacular goal with the same fervor of a man describing microwaving leftovers.
“The ball bounces perfectly right off my chest, I take a pretty good touch with it, it bounces nicely in front of me and then I just tried to bend it,” he said. “It went right where it was supposed to go.”
Atlanta took a 1-0 lead into the break.
With RSL still struggling to find chances, Atlanta extended their lead 15 minutes into the second half. Gressel threw the ball in and Villalba sent a half-volley goalward. The shot clattered off the post and then off the back of a diving Nick Rimando and into the net.
Villalba now has seven goals on the year. Gressel picked up his 14th (!) assist off the throw, adding to a remarkable tally in a remarkable year.
“He’s done it all,” Jeff Larentowicz said of Gressel. “Honestly, from the moment he came in you knew there was something about him. He was a special player. Last year he did it where he was playing multiple positions but this year he’s excelled at every one. Any player that’s playing with that level of confidence is good for the team and right now he’s involved with everything good that’s Atlanta United when we’re on the field.”
While Larentowicz was complimenting Gressel, Gressel was quick to sing the praises of the teenager playing opposite him. Despite a bit of understandable nerves from Bello off the pitch, Gressel had nothing but positive things to say about Bello on it.
“I thought he had a great game. He was clean on the ball, he didn’t seem nervous -- I’m sure he was, he looked like it in the locker room -- but he had a great performance and there’s many more starts to come,” Gressel said. “He was asking a lot of questions, especially to me. Asking how to be as a wing back. But like I said it didn’t seem like that at all on the field and he had a tremendous performance.”
Bello immediately confirmed the pregame nerves. He also confirmed just how quickly they dissipated.
“I was kind of jittery, kind of shaking during the day,” the Douglasville native said. “Once I took the first touch of the ball I was like ‘Alright, this is what I do.’ I calmed down after that and I just tried to play the best I can play.”
Bello said his teammates talked to him throughout the day and helped keep him calm. It’s even easier to buy into what your teammates are saying when those teammates are a part of side that now sits four points clear of New York Red Bulls in the Supporters’ Shield with four games left. Not to take away from Bello, though. Tata Martino agreed that you have to be brave beyond your years to start and play well in front of 72,017 people.
“The good thing is we have young players but we’re able to add them to a very solid team. So when they go onto the field there’s a better chance of them to perform well because of the guys around them. But with George this game we also wanted to give a couple of guys rest and George came on and did a really good job,” Martino said. “He’s only 16 years old but he has to be brave to step into that spot.”
Tata predictably wouldn’t hint at a timetable for Bello’s next start. If he did do enough to earn a second consecutive start over Chris McCann, it will come in the biggest game of the season. The Five Stripes head to Harrison, New Jersey on Sunday for a massive meetup with the second-place New York Red Bulls.
There was no looking ahead for Atlanta though. They were just glad to have made it through three games in eight days still in tact, and still in first.
“We just played three in a week!” Larentowicz said when asked for his thoughts on the match-up. “I’m going to turn off for a few days. You guys should too.”