ATLANTA, Ga. — Atlanta United began its title defense Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the same vein in which they won MLS Cup last year — not pretty, but effective. The Five Stripes defeated the New England Revolution 1-0 in Round One of the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.
When asked what he saw from his team on the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Saturday, Atlanta’s star striker Josef Martinez had a simple answer.
"Warriors,” said Martinez in his native Spanish. “It doesn't matter how you play, all that matters is to win.”
And just like last year’s playoff run, Atlanta’s win Saturday was punctuated with a goal from an unlikely source — defender Franco Escobar.
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“Escobar and the playoffs. I don't know what the story is there — it must be a love relationship or something,” said wingback Julian Gressel after the game. “I like that Escobar the most. It's definitely a big one for him to come out again and score a big one for us tonight and should give him some confidence moving into the next round.”
Playoffs = Escobar szn 👌— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) October 19, 2019
He hammers home the Golden Spike for you, Atlanta. pic.twitter.com/zsSby7m3fp
Martinez said he celebrated Escobar's goal “like we won the championship,” in a game that felt as tight and cagey as the team’s win against the Portland Timbers in last year’s MLS Cup final.
“It's not easy to defend a title because every team gives you their best shot,” said Martinez, who finished the game with three shots and one chance created. “Every team tries to play the game of their life against you. We know it's not going to be easy. In these games, you have to try to minimize your mistakes. It's really important in these playoff games. And then you have to take the chances that you're given.”
After the same two teams faced off in the same venue just two weeks ago on Decision Day presented by AT&T, it was always bound to be a cagey affair between two of the league’s most experienced managers in Frank de Boer and Bruce Arena.
“The effort was outstanding. I thought it was a good game and we could've been the team walking off the field 1-0 as well,” Arena said after the game. “Both teams had chances. They converted one, we did not. I thought for the most part we played well.
“There were some chances there [at the end of the game], and they certainly had some,” Arena added. “We knew it'd be one play. We fully expected to be able to go toe-to-toe with them for 90 minutes and we did, but we fell short.”
Despite a loss that will leave a sour taste in the mouth of his team considering how close the Revs kept the game, the second half of the season gives the club positive momentum after the low point highlighted by Brad Friedel’s departure.
“The team has gotten much better. It's our job in the offseason to strengthen the roster,” said Arena. “We obviously only made one change to the team since I've been in charge, and we're certainly going to make some changes in the offseason and hopefully build a stronger team next year.”