The fans showed their love for the coach before the game. Then Atlanta United’s players made sure Tata Martino has to stick around for a few more weeks.
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, clinching the victory 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.
Martino, the former Barcelona and Argentina national coach who’s been so instrumental to United’s success, has already announced he’ll be leaving at the end of the season, reportedly to head Mexico’s national team.
But he’s staying through the playoffs.
Honoring The Coach
His players would love to give him a championship as a going-away gift.
“Tata is the face of the team,” captain Michael Parkhurst said. “We’re still getting better, I think. I still think we can play a little bit better, and Tata continues to push us. It’s just an extra motivating factor. We all want to win. We all want to be champions. That would be icing on the cake, for sure.”
During the pregame festivities, United’s fans unveiled a towering, statue-like tifo of Martino that showed the coach in his trademark pose — arms crossed and a sweater tied over his shoulders. “El Tata” was written on the base.
“I’ve been very involved with everything Atlanta United — with the players, the club, the fans,” Martino said through a translator. “It’s great that their recognizing that. I’m just very thankful.”
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 this 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 conference final.
They got more than that, earning a spot against the Red Bulls. The Red Bulls beat Columbus 3-0 on Sunday night for a 3-1 aggregate victory.
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.
Big Atlanta Crowd Sees Team Win
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.
“You run out of superlatives,” Parkhurst said. “Some guys might take it for granted, but most of us don’t. We understand what a privilege, what an honor it is to play in front of this crowd. Not everybody has that opportunity. I’m just glad we put on a good performance tonight to match their energy.”
Not playing it safe, 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 to send 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.
That turned out to be New York City’s only goal in the series. The team lost for the third straight year in the conference semifinals.
“The most frustrating thing to have such a talented group to come up empty-handed in two games,” Johnson said. “Not just one, but two games. It is inexcusable for us as a team to not go out and get at least one result and advance. We are good enough to advance.”