Martinez, Villalba lead Atlanta United to win

Josef Martinez’s MLS-leading 14th goal and another solid performance by goalkeeper Brad Guzan were enough to lift Atlanta United to a 2-0 victory over Columbus on Wednesday at MAPFRE Stadium.

Martinez’s goal came with a price: he knocked heads with Artur and was later subbed off to start the second half. He may have a broken nose. Hector Villalba notched the second goal.

The victory increased Atlanta United’s league-leading points total to 33 and was its fourth shutout this season. It was also its fifth win on the road after notching four all of last season. The team is off until it hosts Chicago on June 20 in the fifth round of the U.S. Open Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

» More: Atlanta United championing the road this season

“I think tonight we showed patience, we showed a level of maturity that we haven’t shown before,” Guzan said. “When you come to difficult places against top teams you have to do that.”

Atlanta United took four points from back-to-back games against two of the other top teams in the East, which included last week’s 1-1 draw at NYCFC. Atlanta United leads second-place NYCFC by five points. The defeat was Columbus’ first in nine games. The Crew will stay in third in the East with 27 points.

Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino put Miguel Almiron in the starting 11, despite the playmaker suffering a shoulder injury in the first two minutes of the previous game against NYCFC. That injury also forced him to be subbed off at halftime in that game.

The other switch made by Martino was to go back to the 4-3-3 formation the team has used with mixed success, instead of the 3-5-2 that has generated mostly positive results. Martino likes to use the 4-3-3  against teams that like to press and play out of the back because it gives them more players in the midfield.

After dominating the ball for the game’s first eight minutes, Atlanta United took a 1-0 lead in the 30th minute on Martinez’s header. It was Martinez’s 33rd goal in his 36th MLS game. Trainers examined Martinez for several minutes before he returned to action. The goal broke Columbus’ goalkeeper Zack Steffen’s shutout streak at 525 minutes. Ezequiel Barco earned his first assist this season on the corner kick, which Martinez met at the back post. 

“His work rate goes unnoticed because of the goals he scores,” Guzan said of Martinez. “Everyone talks about his ability to score. Tonight he was huge. One chance, one goal. Breaks his nose. That shows his competitiveness. That shows why he’s the Golden Boot leader. That shows why he’s international.”

Martinez was replaced by Romario Williams to start the second half.

Guzan, coming off making a club-record nine saves against NYCFC, came up big early in the second half when he not only stopped a hard shot by Gyasi Zardes, but also pounced on the rebound before Columbus’ Cristian Martinez could reach the ball.

Guzan made more saves to keep Atlanta United’s lead, including one at the near post and another to prevent Zardes from just a few yards away.

Atlanta United put away the game with a goal from Villalba on an assist from Almiron, his seventh of the season. It was Villalba’s second goal this season and first since the season’s second game. It was Villalba’s first return to action since suffering a hyperextended knee two weeks ago.

“I’m happy, really happy because these last three months have been difficult for me” Villaba said. “It seems like it’s been injury after injury. That’s why I’m happy to get back on the field. This game was important to me.”

Atlanta United controlled Zardes and Higuain, the two players that were the focus of their game plan. Martino said the team felt more comfortable playing with four defenders, three midfielders and three attackers, which enabled them to get more pressure up front and deny Zardes and Higuain from receiving the ball.

“Jeff (Larentowicz) was excellent, Leandro (Gonzalez Pirez) was excellent, Parkie (Michael Parkhurst) was excellent,” Guzan said. “The three of them contained those guys for 95 minutes tonight.”

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