By Itoro N. Umontuen
Josef Martinez scored twice Saturday night to give Atlanta United a 2-0 win over the Chicago Fire in front of 67,502 people at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Martinez scored his ninth and tenth goals of the season. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan recorded his eighth clean sheet of the season, tying the team record set in 2018.
“I feel good,” said Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez. “I think the team played well, and it was important because we played against a good team, a team that has been playing well lately and tonight, they came here to play, so it was against a tough opponent. The goals are coming, and we are back on top of the table, so for that, we are happy.”
Atlanta United finished a grueling stretch of eight matches in 28 days, picking up 18 points out of a possible 24. As play ended, Atlanta was leading Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference with 26 points. However, D.C. United picked up a 1-1 draw against San Jose, putting them one point ahead of the Five Stripes with 27 points.
“I think there is always space to improve, and we have to,” said Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer. “We are progressing, we are taking steps forward. Sometimes we play really good, and this was a game with a lot of character. You want to see those elements in your team, so that was very positive for me to see that they can suffer and work and get a good result out of it. I’m happy where we are right now, but we still have plenty to improve.”
One of the players that has turned up is winger Dion Pereira. The 20-year-old Englishman turned up in Atlanta after he was signed from Watford on January 15th. As the season began, Pereira played with ATL UTD 2 as he was behind established stars Ezequiel Barco, Tito Villalba, Julian Gressel and Pity Martinez. In the past two weeks, Barco went off to represent Argentina in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, Villalba got injured and it presented an opportunity for Pereira to show his skills.
“He’s one of the best going one-v-one on our roster. He has the pace and good technique. He was a constant threat for the opponent. Very pleased for him. He has to continue that aggressiveness, not just be a beautiful player. In a game, in every league, you have to do more. What are you doing when you don’t have the ball. Now, he understands that better, and it’s nice to see him picking that up. He’s listening to the players and staff, and his rewards is getting the playing time these last couple of games,” said de Boer.
Pereira has adjusted to life in the first team.
“To be fair, my teammates just tell me every time to get at the defenders, get at them. I know in myself, and my teammates know, push me on saying ‘Your ability is amazing, so use it, and it can get us up the pitch, it could create chances and everything, so just do it as much as possible’. I feel like doing that in the game creates a lot more chances, and as a team, we are creating a lot more chances in the recent games as well.”
While Atlanta United will not play again at home until June 29th against the Montreal Impact, a key international friendly match between Mexico and Venezuela will be staged at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this Wednesday. Former Atlanta United manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino left the club after winning the MLS Cup to coach Mexico. It will be the first time Tata will return to Atlanta since the parade.
“(Tata) gave a lot to me, to the team, and to the city,” said Josef Martinez. “I think he gave all the players confidence, and he made us all believe in ourselves, and he gave a lot to us, so we tried to give a lot back to him. I think that is why we won a Championship, so I think it will be a nice game that he is coming back to Atlanta. We have to enjoy it, because this is his home, it has always been his home, and he deserves it.
That’s why I get emotional because aside from our coach he was like a father. I think the ovation will be for him, and I hope it’s for him. I think he gave this city a lot. Things that many important people haven’t done and for that he deserves it and much more. Beyond the game, I hope people come and say goodbye to him like he deserves and welcome him like he deserves. I don’t think he had the best goodbye, even though he won a championship. But, as a person, he deserves more, and we have to enjoy that game.”
This article originally appeared in the Atlanta Voice.