It had been just over 4 months since Atlanta United had won a match away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a 1-0 win over LD Alajuelanse in the opening leg of the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 on April 6. You’d have to go back to October 3, 2020, to find its last away win in MLS play: a 4-0 demolition of D.C. United at Audi Field.
With Josef Martinez serving his suspension for Wednesday’s red card ejection at CF Montréal, those streaks—along with a 12-match winless stretch for the Five Stripes—came to a long-awaited end at Lower.com Field on Saturday in the form of a 3-2 win over the Columbus Crew on Saturday night.
It wasn’t without drama, though.
The Crew had 2 goals called back on offside decisions, the first in the 48th minute via Luis Diaz that would have made it a 2-2 contest, and the second against Derrick Etienne Jr. in the 72nd minute that threatened to halve what was a 3-1 Atlanta lead. Three penalties, 2 to Atlanta and 1 to Columbus, were awarded, with Pedro Santos’ successful kick from the spot eventually making it 3-2 in the opening moments of second-half stoppage time to ensure that Atlanta would have to sweat out the waning moments.
But the equalizer never came for the Crew as they were sent to a 3rd straight loss, a skid during which they’ve conceded 11 goals after letting in just 12 in the 15 matches prior. At long last, Atlanta had 3 points for the first time since a 1-0 triumph against Montréal at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on May 15, earning interim head coach Rob Valentino his first MLS win.
“I’m so proud of them,” Valentino said after the match. “It’s been really difficult, and this is just a start. It wasn’t always pretty, but sometimes you’ve got to get a win like that.”
Atlanta’s first goal came on a pretty spell of combination play between Ezequiel Barco and George Bello. A pass from Miles Robinson was dummied by Jackson Conway to spring Barco, who found Bello just beyond the scoring area. Bello’s nifty back-heel pass found the feet of the Argentinian, and his shot beat Eloy Room to make it 1-0 inside of 5 minutes.
Valentino complemented the performance that Bello put in both on Saturday and on Wednesday, highlighting the growth the 19-year-old Homegrown Player exhibited after being under the tutelage of USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter and being surrounded with older, experienced players during the Gold Cup.
“He stepped up tonight [and] the other night (against Montréal),” he said. “Even the other day, we were in a video session and I really challenged him in front of the group, and he probably didn’t like it for a little bit, but he’s matured. He’s still got a long way to go, but the kid’s got a seriously bright future. If he sticks on this path, he’s destined for something (big)”.
Barco, who completed his first-half brace with a 35th-minute penalty, spoke about the tactical bond the two players exhibited on Saturday.
“George and I get along well both on and off the field, and it’s true that we have a good connection,” Barco said through an interpreter. “On that play, I was expecting the pass because he’s a player that has that quality, so I was able to continue my run, and he was able to find me.”
With its 18th match in the books, Atlanta United still have plenty of work to do if it’s to put together a strong enough run of results to climb back into playoff position. But 6 of its next 7 matches are at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, starting with next Sunday’s nationally-televised contest against LAFC on ESPN that could feature the debut of new signing Luiz Araújo. Valentino mentioned both on his pre-match media availability on Friday and during his post-match press conference that the Designated Player should arrive early in the week as he secures a visa allowing him to head to the United States from France.
So while it’s hard to savor a well-deserved 3rd league win for Atlanta while preparing for a lethal LAFC attack featuring All-Stars Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, Valentino is doing the best he can.
“I’m trying really, really hard to enjoy this moment (but) I don’t do a good job with that,” he said. “You get that happiness for such a short period of time, and then you already think, ‘Oh wait, the next game’, and you can’t be settled with this, you can’t be happy with that. I just need to relax and enjoy it because it’s been so difficult, and everyone knows that. But I’m proud of the group. I’m proud of everyone at the club...
“I’m happy that I’m in this position to be here and to share it with them. This is for everyone in Atlanta, this is for the fans, and I hope it’s just the start of us rolling.”