ATLANTA — As Atlanta United prepare for the final stretch in their chase of the Supporters' Shield, a Concacaf Champions League berth and a Knockout Round bye in the MLS Cup Playoffs, they may every advantage they can get. Which is exactly why their 3-1 victory over Columbus Crew SC on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium may have been the most important of the season.
“We talked before the game that this was the first time in a while that our name wasn’t first on the standings,” said Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst. “We know it’s going to be a fight for the rest of the season, but we want to make sure that our name is at the top.”
Atlanta are now unbeaten in their last six matches going into a month-long road trip. After facing Orlando City in Florida on Friday (8 pm ET | ESPN — Full TV & streaming info) during Heineken Rivalry Week, they continue at D.C. United, the Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes before returning to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 22 to play Real Salt Lake.
Midfielder Julian Gressel agreed the victory against Crew SC was “huge,” especially considering their next four opponents currently sit below the playoff line.
“Obviously with the opponents coming up for us, that was probably the hardest game in terms of what’s on the schedule,” he said. Quick to avoid bulletin board material, he added “no game is easy” in MLS.
Atlanta now have 51 points in 25 matches, putting them at the top of the Shield race for now. They are locked in a three-way race with the two Big Apple clubs, who will face each other on Wednesday in the NY Derby.
That match will have major ramifications for the standings, with Red Bulls just three points behind Atlanta with a game in hand and NYCFC sitting on 47 points after 25 matches. Atlanta also remains in a narrow lead for a Concacaf Champions League berth, given to the MLS team with the highest point total in 2017 and 2018. Atlanta has 106 to NYCFC’s 104.
The 1st goal scored for @ATLUTD on Sunday was a big one.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 20, 2018
Josef Martínez tied the single season #MLS scoring record with his 27th goal.
Martínez's next shot at the record comes Friday on #ESPN against Orlando City; a team he has 5 goals in 3 games against, including a hat trick. pic.twitter.com/QaT1VwmR9U
Gressel said the win on Sunday was important to “send a message out to the two New York teams that this is ours to lose. You have to beat us in order to win the Supporters' Shield.”
Atlanta will feel more confident heading into the month-long road trip after Hector “Tito” Villalba and Miguel Almiron found the net. Josef Martinez had scored the team’s last nine goals before Villalba finished off an exceptional solo run.
Almiron ended a personal goalless drought going back to June, the relief evident as he ripped off his jersey to celebrate.
"I think he's going to be much calmer from this point on,” Martino said of Almiron. “I think he had been suffering a little bit from not being able to score, but I think he's going to be calm and it's going to help us as we move forward."
What’s also going to help Martino is having several of his regular starters return the lineup, like Ezequiel Barco, who played 18 minutes on Sunday after being held out three matches for an “act of indiscipline.”
"It's important to have him back,” said Martino. “Just like before when we had him, and we had Tito on the bench, now to have both those guys back, it's just a benefit for our team to have guys who are able to come in off the bench and be able to enter a game and make an impact.
“Hopefully we'll be able to count on guys like [Darlington] Nagbe and [Greg] Garza as well as we enter this final stretch of the season, because the more complete and deep our roster is, the better off we are."