Josef Martinez, Franco Escobar and Hector Villalba scored and Atlanta United blew out the Supporters’ Shield-winning New York Red Bulls 3-0 on Sunday in the opening leg of the Eastern Conference final.
Atlanta gave itself a huge edge heading into the second leg Thursday night in Harrison, New Jersey. The winner of the two-game, cumulative-goals series will host the MLS Cup final Dec. 8 against either Portland or Sporting Kansas City.
Before a crowd of 70,016 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, United defeated the Red Bulls for the first time in franchise history after three losses and a draw in their previous meetings. Atlanta also gave itself a bit of redemption after losing the Supporters’ Shield to New York on the final day of the regular season.
A matchup between the two best teams in MLS was a one-sided affair. Atlanta dominated much of the game and could have won by an even bigger margin. While a Red Bulls goal was waved off after a video review and goalkeeper Brad Guzan made a big save in the closing minutes, this game was played mostly in the Red Bulls’ end of the field.
After controlling play from the opening whistle, Atlanta finally broke through in the 32nd minute.
Of course, it was Martinez who got the honors .
Jeff Larentowicz set up the play with a towering pass into the penalty area toward the Golden Boot winner and MVP finalist, who set an MLS scoring record with 31 goals during the regular season. Martinez wound up with the ball between two defenders after Tim Parker missed an attempted header, settling it with his chest and blasting a left-footed shot inside the far post that left keeper Luis Robles with no chance.
The Red Bulls appeared to tie it in the 53rd.
The ball was lofted into the area, where Aaron Long was able to head it back toward the front of the net. One Red Bulls player let it go by — straight to an unmarked Bradley Wright-Phillips, who sent a right-footed shot past a diving Guzan. But when referee Kevin Stott took another look at the play on video, it clearly showed Alex Muyl lingering offsides behind the last Atlanta defender as Wright-Phillips connected with the shot.
Atlanta padded its lead in the 72nd, this time on a play set up by its other MVP candidate, Miguel Almiron. He split the defense up top and threaded a pass down the left wing to Julian Gressel, who crossed it back in front toward Martinez. The United star unselfishly let it go by him, knowing Escobar was racing in all alone off the opposite wing.
Escobar ripped a shot past Robles to give United a two-goal edge.
Villalba provided an extra cushion when Atlanta hits the road, scoring in stoppage time with a brilliant shot that curled past two defenders and left Robles standing flat-footed.