Atlanta United’s first step towards a successful defense of its MLS Cup title proved to be a difficult one, but it also helped provide a reminder that the reigning champions aren’t giving up their title easily.
Franco Escobar scored a near-post blast in the 70th minute, beating Matt Turner for the only goal in a 1-0 Atlanta United victory over the New England Revolution on Saturday.
Ezequiel Barco set up the winner, laying off a perfect pass in the penalty area that caught a streaking Escobar in stride. The fullback had a chance to try and deliver a cross, but instead chose to test Turner with a shot on a tight angle and he hit it perfectly, lifting his shot over Turner to help send Atlanta United to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“It was always going to be a game where we had to fight for everything,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “This game probably presented a few more challenges than if we were to play someone else just because we played them two weeks ago.
“I thought we rolled our sleeves up at times, to battle, to show some grit and that’s an important quality going forward.”
It was a costly win for Atlanta United, which saw veteran defender Michael Parkhurst forced out of the match late with a dislocated shoulder. Team physicians were unable to pop his shoulder back in, and he was ultimately forced to leave the match and was transported to the hospital.
It was a brutal end to what had been an outstanding night for the Atlanta United captain, who stepped in for injured starter Miles Robinson and turned in a strong performance, breaking up several New England attacks and providing stability and sharp passing out of the back.
New England made things tough on the home team, frustrating Atlanta United’s attack, which was unable to convert the chances it created in the first half. Turner denied a Darlington Nagbe shot in the 10th minute, making a full-stretch save to deny Atlanta’s best chance of the first half.
Ezequiel Barco nearly found an opener just two minutes later, but he couldn’t put his shot on frame, wasting a golden opportunity after Atlanta pounced on a New England turnover.
Josef Martinez saw his best chance of the first half sail over the crossbar after he had a 33rd-minute look at goal.
Brad Guzan delivered the save of the night in the 37th minute when he dove to his left to deny a Cristian Penilla blast from the top of the box, thwarting New England’s best chance of the night.
Atlanta found its chances in the second half, with Turner denying a close range shot from Barco in the 55th minute.
Barco had the last laugh though, finally unlocking New England’s defense with a slipped a pass behind the Revs defense, where Escobar raced in and one-timed a close-range shot past Turner.
“We knew it would be one play,” Revs coach Bruce Arena said. “We fully expected to be able to go toe-to-toe with them for 90, and we did, but we fell short.”
Barco turned in a Man of the Match performance on a day when Atlanta United coach Frank DeBoer made him the team’s lead playmaker and kept Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez on the bench.
“I have to make decisions and right now I think, with the three in midfield, with (Barco) and with Emerson (Hyndman), with Jeff (Larentowicz) and Darlington (Nagbe), it’s a good balance,” DeBoer said. “Then, I have one spot left on that position and that’s Barco or Pity (Martinez). Now I’m choosing for Barco, and he is doing well. I have, of course, always choices, but for me I didn’t have reasons to change him for Pity.”
Barco and Nagbe were the top performers for Atlanta, with Larentowicz also performing well.
Atlanta United will now play host to the winner of Sunday’s Philadelphia Union-New York Red Bulls match, on Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.