Atlanta United is bound for MLS playoffs

Atlanta United is headed to the MLS playoffs.

Despite fielding a starting lineup without the injured Miguel Almiron, the first-year team pulled apart Philadelphia 3-0 behind goals from Julian Gressel, Josef Martinez and Jacob Peterson on Wednesday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The victory clinched one of the six playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Seattle was the last expansion team in 2009 to reach the postseason.

The win came a year to the day that Gerardo Martino was introduced as the team’s first manager. Even then during his introduction at the World of Coke, through building the roster and the team’s first training camp in Florida, he said he knew they had the potential to be special.

“I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t one of the expectations for the season because we have really good players and I knew the type of players that we were going to be bringing in,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair to use the excuse, ‘Only a few teams have made the playoffs as an expansion team.’ We knew the kind of players we were bringing in.”

The other expansion teams to make the playoffs are the 1998 Chicago Fire, 1998 Miami Fusion, and 2009 Seattle Sounders.

The victory also helped Atlanta United (15-8-7) keep pace with NYCFC in the race for second place in the East. The top two teams receive a bye in the first round of the playoffs. NYCFC defeated Montreal on Wednesday to maintain second. Atlanta United trails them by three points, but has a game in hand.

“We’re going to try to go for that second spot,” Martion said.

The win also cemented a successful six-game stand at Atlanta United’s new home. The team won 16 of a possible 18 points and posted five shutouts to increase its season total to 10. Atlanta United was tied for sixth place in the Eastern Conference when it started the stretch against Dallas on Sept. 10. The Five Stripes have steadily moved up the table since, and are at least in third heading into Saturday night’s game at New England.

Atlanta United improved to 11-2-2 at home and has two home games remaining before the playoffs: vs. Minnesota United on Oct. 3 and Toronto on Oct. 22, when the team will open the entire stadium for ticket sales. The team has 15 consecutive sellouts after 43,006 tickets were sold for Wednesday’s game.

The first-round playoff games will be played Oct. 25 or 26. The first leg of the semifinals will be played Oct. 30 or 31. The second leg will be played Nov. 5. The Eastern Conference championship’s first leg will be held Nov. 21, with the second leg Nov. 28 or 29.

“We said it tonight: we wanted it to be in our hands,” Gressel said. “We wanted to clinch it today (and not look) at other teams. We did that and took care of business ourselves. Now, we’re in the playoffs. Now, we can push for that second place in the East and try and get a bye and obviously get a home game in the second round.”

The MLS Cup will be held Dec. 9 at the site of the competing team with the best regular-season record.

Atlanta United took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Gressel in the 28th minute. Gressel took a pass from Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, shook off a tackle from Warren Creavalle, and toe-poked a right-footed shot across the goal and into the lower right corner. It was Gressel’s fourth goal this season.

Atlanta United took a 2-0 lead on a goal by Martinez in the 33rd minute. Gressel split Philadelphia’s lines with a diagonal pass that Kevin Kratz smartly let go by him and straight to Martinez. He took a touch and hit a left-footed shot back across the goal. It was his 18th goal this season. 

Martinez celebrated by running from the penalty box to the Atlanta United bench and putting an Almiron jersey over his face. Almiron suffered a hamstring injury in the first half of Sunday’s 2-0 win over Montreal and is expected to miss at least three weeks. 

Martinez said he has done a similar celebration once before in his first game with the Venezuelan national team. He said he decided before the game to celebrate by honoring Almiron because he said he is team’s MVP.

“On my 18 goals, he’s helped me on about half of them,” Martinez said. “He’s the most important player on our team. He’s really important for us and for me.”

With the assist, Gressel moved into second in MLS history for assists (9) by a rookie. Clint Mathis, who is from Atlanta, leads with 10.

The starting lineup featured a few changes, highlighted by the absence of Almiron. Gressel, a candidate for MLS rookie of the year, started in place of Almiron. Additionally, captain Michael Parkhurst was given his first league game off this season. Jeff Larentowicz slid back from holding midfielder to play centerback in place of Parkhurst. Kevin Kratz moved in to the holding midfielder role.

“We got outplayed by a better team tonight,” Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin said. “Atlanta was sharp on the night from the opening whistle. They outplayed us thoroughly in the first half.”

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