The day was November 25, 2018. The scene was the Eastern Conference Final first leg against the New York Red Bulls at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. With Atlanta United up 2-0 on their way to a very nice win but still with plenty of hard work to do in the second leg, Tito Villalba stepped up and scored what I consider to be the most important goal in the club’s short history.
THAT goal against THAT opponent in that THAT moment just felt truly special. With all due respect to the 2018 Portland Timbers and to the great performance Atlanta put on in MLS Cup later on, that goal felt like the moment the cup was won. After the ball rolled past Luis Robles and the Benz erupted into a state of pure ecstasy, the momentum just felt like too much for anything to stand in that team’s way.
That goal encapsulates what Tito Villalba is all about and sums up his Atlanta United career. A player with glaring faults but with the ability to create magic out of absolutely nothing. That’s the player many fell in love with for the first two years of the Atlanta United experience.
His time is up in Atlanta (according to various reports) and not a moment too soon. It’s become abundantly clear that he doesn’t fit Frank de Boer’s style of play. He was never going to get the playing time he needs or deserves as long as the current regime is in charge. Thankfully, his move away comes in enough time to keep all relationships intact, leaving nothing but the good memories like that unforgettable moment against the Red Bulls.
That wasn’t the only moment of brilliance Tito created in his three years with the club. Hell, he won the team’s Goal of the Year award in his first two years, when he actually got the minutes to make an impact. But, this is the moment that will live on for as long as Atlanta United exists.
The pure emotional reaction Tito exudes while running towards the fans after scoring the goal is exactly why he will beloved around this community for a long time. I experienced Landon Donovan’s last-second goal against Algeria. John Brooks’ late winner against Ghana. And various other great moments my favorite teams have been involved with. Yet, Tito’s bit of magic in that situation just feels different.
Overall opinion on him will always be mixed. Some will always choose to focus on his imperfections rather than what he did bring to Atlanta. However, no one can debate how important his goal against the Red Bulls was.
Surely there will be differing opinions on what the “greatest” goal so far is and that’s fine. For me, Tito hitting the grim reaper that was the Red Bulls in the mouth with their own scythe and burying them for good will be hard to top for some time. Chris Armas may have blew it, but Tito Villalba clutched it.