For Tito Villalba, plenty of emotion off bench following difficult year

MARIETTA, Ga. — After Atlanta United’s dominant 3-0 win over New York Red Bulls in Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference Championship, Josef Martinez hugged Tito Villalba and told him “that’s the Tito I know.”

It’s been a start-stop year for the Argentine-born Paraguayan international, sidelined periodically by injuries that have impeded the pacy forward from putting together a run of form. Given those struggles, it's no wonder his goal late in stoppage time Sunday to give Atlanta a commanding 3-0 lead in the series made Villalba somewhat obviously overcome with emotion.

“As a defender, there's nothing worse than being tired in the 80th minute and then seeing the fastest guy on the field come on. It's brutal,” said Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst. “Tito obviously was fantastic over the weekend. Not only the goal, but relieving us of pressure with his speed out of our end of the field into their half.”

Atlanta manager Tata Martino pointed out after the match Sunday that no one in the league has players as dangerous as Villalba and Ezequiel Barco coming off the bench late in games, and the combination of the two help give Atlanta continuity in the attack.

“They have a combination that is similar to the skills that Miguel [Almiron] and Josef bring when they are on the field together,” Martino explained through a translator to media Tuesday. “Barco is able to come in with his quickness and his ability on the ball, so he does a good job of replicating some of the things that Miguel does. And then Tito comes on who is very fast, and he can play as a forward and can score goals.”

Perhaps more than anything, Martino is most pleased with the tandem's willingness to make an impact off the bench despite their high profiles in the league. Barco is famously the most expensive player to come to MLS, while Villalba was the team’s first Designated Player.

“This is what every coach wants on a team — when you have guys as talented as they are who have accepted their role and have the right mentality, because they are such talented players,” said Martino. “It's a trait of good teams, that despite however many talented guys they have that are kept off the field by other players, that everyone is still bought in, still involved and concentrated on the game.”