ATLANTA -- After his heroics against Orlando City SC over the last two weekends, Atlanta United forward Hector “Tito” Villalba probably shouldn’t go to Disneyworld anytime soon: He's sure to become persona non grata in Orlando.
Villalba has now performed a smash-and-grab feat against the Lions twice with late-game strikes, ensuring that the Five Stripes take four of the first six points up for grabs in what could be a blossoming Southeastern rivalry.
In last weekend’s match in Orlando, Villalba did most of the work, taking the ball off a throw in and scoring the game winner in the 86th minute with a long-distance golazo. This Saturday in a 1-1 draw, he tied up the game in injury time thanks to a lovely throughball from teammate Yamil Asad.
“I made a diagonal run, but Yamil [Asad] did everything,” Villalba said through a translator. “The team was really motivated to find that goal because we had a lot of chances, especially in the first half. We just kept working on it and were able to find it in the last minute.”
The goal was Villalba’s 10th on the season, putting him ahead of Josef Martinez as the team’s scoring leader. It was also Asad’s 10th assist.
“[Villalba] gets chances and he puts them away, that’s the life of a striker,” said teammate Jeff Larentowicz. “You’ve got to take your chances and he takes them.”
Villalba has stepped up to fill the striker role left vacant as Martinez continues to struggle with injuries, and has been more than an adequate replacement throughout the season, especially in these last two matches.
“He’s our goalscorer of the moment,” said Atlanta coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino said through a translator. “Through his goals, through Miguel [Almiron]’s goals, and through assists by Julian [Gressel] or Yamil, we’re doing our best to fill in during Josef’s absence, and that’s what’s most important for the team.”
“It’s been my moment and I’m taking advantage of it,” said Villalba. “But I have to thank the coaching staff for all the help they’ve been giving me, showing me things on film and I’m just taking advantage of it.”
Despite Martino’s comments last week that we have to wait “another 50 years and 100 games” to see if Atlanta and Orlando develop a rivalry, the second match between these teams had an unmistakable edge.
“It was a very intense game,” said Villalba, who also thought Kaka's strike from distance owed to good fortune.
“I think they didn’t really look to score the goal tonight,” Villalba continued. “Kaká kind of mis-hit the one that went in and he scored it.”