When you think of Atlanta United’s difference-makers, the focus immediately shifts to the playmakers in attack.
While the collection of South American talent is valuable to the Five Stripes, some of their most important contributors are unsung players that have shined in different spots this season.
In the 3-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls, three unsung players delivered key contributions that have Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s men one goal away from hosting MLS Cup.
Julian Gressel and Jeff Larentowicz have been X-factors in Atlanta’s midfield all season, and they once again stepped up on Sunday, while Franco Escobar exploited the absence of Kemar Lawrence to turn in a Man of the Match level performance at right back.
Larentowicz was responsible for creating Atlanta’s opener, as he played a terrific long ball into Josef Martinez in the 32nd minute.
Gressel’s run into the left side of the penalty area and pass back across the box to a surging Escobar opened up a two-goal advantage in the 71st minute to punish a Red Bulls side that was far from its best on Sunday.
Escobar’s 90-minute showing was the most impressive of the three, as turned in a complete game, which is exactly what the Five Stripes needed once Kemar Lawrence was ruled out of the match with an injury.
“Franco was the deserved man of the match today,” Atlanta center back Michael Parkhurst said. “I thought that he was immense for us. He won so many 50/50 balls for us. When you play against the Red Bulls, you have to win those 50/50s or at least a good chunk of them, and he was so important for us there. He took his goal fantastically. Thankfully, it was on his left foot – that’s his goal scoring foot – so a massive performance from him.”
Gressel, the do-it-all Swiss Army knife in Atlanta’s lineup, helped the Five Stripes jam up the middle of the field to limit the attacking advances of Bradley Wright-Phillips.
“It kind of starts with us getting good pressure and not allowing the service,” Gressel said. “(Wright-Phillips) obviously has great movement in the box, and I think that was a set piece on his (disallowed) goal, but every time he was going to run a play, we had somebody covering the crosses, getting a little touch, at least not letting them hit free crosses in the box to find him. I think that was key to denying the service to him.”
Larentowicz, who is one of the few players left in the postseason to hoist MLS Cup in his career, once again shined for the Five Stripes, as he played alongside Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Michael Parkhurst in a three-man back line.
In order to stop the Red Bulls from surging back into the series on Thursday night in New Jersey, the trio of unsung stars must replicate their performances, with more of an emphasis expected to be on the defensive approach.
If the Five Stripes are able to limit the chances of the Red Bulls, especially in the first half on Thursday night, they’ll be in good position to host MLS Cup on December 8.
“Obviously, you do not have to have the urgency going forward, but we have to have the urgency defending,” Gressel said. “The intensity, the fight, that we showed today will ultimately lead us to these kinds of games where the quality comes through in certain moments, and then you win the game.”
“That’s the same kind of mentality, you know, going to work,” Gressel said. “They (New York Red Bulls) are a good team you know. They beat Columbus Crew SC 3-0 at home, so there is still 90 minutes left. Nothing is over yet.”