MARRIETA, Ga. – In the absence of the injured Josef Martinez, Hector Villalba has started to find good form for Atlanta United FC. A shift from his traditional winger role to a more center forward position has allowed the Argentine Designated Player to shine, notching three goals over the last three games.
He’s been the lone scorer since Martinez fell to injury, with his latest two goals coming last week against Toronto FC in an exciting 2-2 draw.
Villalba’s speed was on display in the game. Playing up top allowed him to get behind defenders and attack the goal rather than trying to beat defenders 1-v-1 or force crosses into the box.
“For me, nothing changes if I’m playing a No. 9 or on the right wing. Both positions are comfortable for me,” Villalba said Tuesday. “The last time I played central forward was in 2013 when we were champions with San Lorenzo.”
The 22-year-old credited Atlanta United head coach "Tata" Martino for putting him at striker. In arguably the toughest matches for Atlanta United to date, Martino expressed his confidence in Villalba in the role.
Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said he has no idea how teams can slow him down. Even if he did himself, he wouldn’t tell anyone.
“He’s had success getting in behind guys. He’s fast and he’s willing to run,” Parkhurst said of Villalba. “When we get the ball and we look up, he’s on the move. He wants it in behind, he wants to always push their backline. That’s tough to defend against when you’re always concerned about someone running in behind you.
“Defenses have to be really very wary of that or they have to drop off and if they drop off, it gives Miguel [Almiron] more room in the midfield. It’s a good problem for us that he’s causing so many problems for other teams,” Parkhurst added.
The two goals against Toronto FC helped Atlanta United secure consecutive road points against the defending MLS conference champions, after they drew in Seattle the week before. The expansion team considers them important results.
“For me and the team it’s hard playing on the road, especially four weeks in a row. It’s tough but we’re just going to keep trying to take away as many points as possible,” Villalba said.
Continuing to working with the same intensity that the club puts forth every day, and continuing to build chemistry is top of mind. Still, Villalba knows he needs to improve his technical ability.
“My speed is my strength, but I can improve on my technique,” he said.
His family and friends in Argentina have taken notice of Villalba’s play and that of Atlanta United, too. Playing with players he’s familiar with from his days in Argentina has made things easier and more attractive to friends, family and fans in Argentina.
“Yeah, the family back in Argentina obviously have been following me and the guys we played against, Yamil [Asad] in Velez, Almiron with Lanus, it’s noticeable the effect it’s having and hopefully [we can] stay on track and keep winning.”