Josef Martinez scored two goals and Atlanta United won the first playoff series in franchise history, knocking off New York City FC 3-1 in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals Sunday.
Atlanta won the two-game series 4-1 on aggregate, finishing off the visiting team with Martinez’s second goal on a breakaway in the 83rd minute . The game drew a crowd of 70,526 — another attendance record for the 2-year-old franchise that has quickly developed one of the world’s most rabid soccer followings.
The victory made up for the bitter disappointment of Atlanta United’s inaugural season, when the expansion team made the playoffs but lost a knockout-round game at home to Columbus on penalties.
Atlanta claimed a big edge in the series by winning the first leg, 1-0 at Yankee Stadium. United, which finished two points behind New York Red Bulls in the Supporters’ Shield standings, returned home merely needing a tie to go through to the Eastern Conference final.
They got more than that, earning a spot in the conference final against either Columbus or the Red Bulls. Those teams met Sunday night with the Crew holding an edge after winning the series opener 1-0.
With New York City pressing hard, knowing it would need two goals to advance, United wrapped up the series. Eric Remedi sent a brilliantly timed pass to Martinez, who was able to stay onside because Valentin Castellanos was lingering too deep in the zone out on the wing. Martinez controlled the ball with his shoulder, looked around for any signs of a challenge and blasted a shot past helpless keeper Sean Johnson.
From there, the celebration was on. The big crowd pushed United past 1 million fans for the season and broke the Major League Soccer playoff record of 67,221 for last season’s loss to the Crew.
United went ahead in the 25th minute on Martinez’s penalty kick, which was set up by Darlington Nagbe’s long pass to Franco Escobar near the end line. Ismael Tajouri-Shradi converged on the Atlanta player, taking him down as he tried to spin away, prompting referee Mark Geiger to point immediately to the spot.
Martinez gave a little hesitation as he approached the ball, slipping his shot inside the right post while Johnson dove left .
Atlanta built a commanding 3-0 lead on aggregate when Miguel Almiron scored off a free kick in the 42nd. It began with a sloppy pass from Yangel Herrera, which was picked off by Almiron and sent him flying toward the area. Herrera grabbed at the United star, both pulling him down and tripping him for a yellow card that easily could’ve been a red.
Almiron took the kick from about 25 meters, curling a left-footer over the wall and into the top left corner , just beyond the grasp of a leaping Johnson.
But New York City gave itself hope of pulling out the series with a goal late in the half after Escobar’s hard tackle brought out another yellow card. The free kick deflected off an Atlanta player in the wall and went right to Maxime Chanot.
Escobar compounded his initial mistakes by failing to mark Chanot, who easily headed it past keeper Brad Guzan in the 45th.
But that turned out to be New York City’s only goal in the series.
Source: The Associated Press