Atlanta United scores 2 first-half goals, beats Chicago 2-1
ATLANTA (AP) — Michael Parkhurst shook hands with the referee after the final whistle, and then turned his attention to the out-of-town scoreboard.
It could have been a really big celebration for Atlanta United.
But New York Red Bulls put a damper on things with a win of their own.
“Darn,” Parkhurst said.
Atlanta scored two first-half goals and held on for a 2-1 victory over the Chicago Fire on Sunday, equaling the MLS record for most points in a season, setting another attendance record and securing a spot in the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League.
But United’s main objective — the best regular-season record in MLS — will go down to the final week of the regular season. New York Red Bulls remained one point behind the Five Stripes in the Supporters’ Shield race with a 1-0 victory at Philadelphia .
“It would have been pretty cool to win it at home,” said 18-year-old Andrew Carleton, who got only his second start of the season with Atlanta missing two key players. “But it makes us want to win the MLS Cup at home even more.”
Before a crowd of 71,812, United improved to 21-6-6 for 69 points, tying the record set last season by Toronto FC. Atlanta will get a chance to break the mark when it faces the Canadian team next Sunday in the regular-season finale.
With Red Bulls closing the season at home against last-place Orlando, United knows it will likely need a road victory to claim its first major trophy.
“When you win trophies, it’s never easy,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said.
Atlanta drew its fifth 70,000-plus crowd of the season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, finishing with a total of 901,033 fans for a per-game average of 53,002. That easily eclipsed the mark of 48,200 that was set in its inaugural season.
“You never take it for granted,” Guzan said. “We’re very lucky to have the atmosphere and the fan support that we have here in Atlanta.”
United prevailed without Miquel Almiron and Tito Villalba who have combined for 19 goals and 23 assists this season. Almiron didn’t play because of an ailing left hamstring, while Villalba was sidelined by a leg injury.
“We’re only as good as our weakest link,” Parkhurst said. “Guys have stepped up throughout the season in big games, big moments.”
Atlanta jumped ahead less than 10 minutes into the game on Franco Escobar’s first goal in league play. Sprinting into the area on the right side, the defender attempted to pass to Josef Martinez lurking in front of the goal, only to have the ball deflect right back to him. Escobar curled a left-footed shot inside the far post to give the home team the quick start it was looking for.
Escobar could never remember scoring a goal with his left foot.
“Lucky,” he said with a smile.
Chicago had plenty of chances in the first half, playing against a makeshift starting group that was sloppy at times and showed its unfamiliarity with each other. Parkhurst nearly scored an own goal, only to be bailed out by Guzan’s brilliant save.
The Fire finally found the back of the net in the 24th minute on a play that left Atlanta pleading for an offside penalty. Michael de Leeuw wound up all alone in front of the goal with two of his teammates and Guzan didn’t have a chance, watching helplessly as the Fire player slid the ball across the line for his second goal of the season. After a video review, the play was allowed to stand.
Just two minutes later, United regained the lead with an own goal. On Chris McCann’s cross in front of the net , a sliding Johan Kappelhof deflected the ball past goalkeeper Patrick McLain to put Atlanta back in front 2-1.
That was enough for Atlanta.
Martinez remained on 30 goals, even though he had several prime chances to break what is now a four-match scoring drought. Most notably, the top season scorer in MLS history was stuffed by McLain in the second half after receiving a pass all alone in front of the Chicago goal.
Atlanta locked up its first appearance in the Champions League by compiling the most points over the last two seasons, joining fellow MLS teams Toronto, Houston and Sporting Kansas City. The league will get one more squad in the 16-team tournament.
“It’s huge,” Guzan said. “We want to be able to put this club on the international map against international competition. Being in Champions League allows us to do that.”
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