Josef Martinez ties the goal record, and all is well for the Kings of the South.
The Venezuelan forward equaled the MLS single-season goal record with nine games left in the regular season, leading Atlanta United to a 3-1 home victory over the Columbus Crew. Adding to Atlanta’s delight, Hector Villalba and Miguel Almiron each added a goal to seal the win. Atlanta is now alone atop the Eastern Conference, three points ahead of the New York Red Bulls, though NYRB has a game in hand.
Josef Martinez ties the goal record
Martinez continued his blistering scoring record, tallying his 27th goal in just 25 matches this season. That ties him with the single-season MLS record, which he now jointly holds with Roy Lassiter (1996), Chris Wondolowski (2012), and Bradley Wright-Phillips (2015).
In a season that has seen Atlanta get rocked by injuries to multiple starters, including U.S. national team regular Darlington Nagbe, and a team-imposed suspension to $15 million acquisition Ezequiel Barco, it has been Martinez’s goals that have kept Atlanta atop the Eastern Conference table.
After an unsteady stretch in the first third of the season that saw Martinez struggle to stay onside, the striker lifted his game to a new level of goal-scoring excellence. He has saved his best for the second half of the season, finding the net in each of the last eight games for a total of 13 goals in that stretch.
Against the Crew, Martinez also registered his third assist of the season when he laid a ball back for Almiron to bury from 22 yards out.
Miggy breaks his goal drought
If a night where Martinez ties the goal record isn’t enough for Atlanta fans, they also got to see their other star break his seven-game goal drought.
Almiron started the season red-hot, logging six goals and five assists in the first ten games and at one point seemed the consensus favorite for the league MVP award. But although his exceptional work rate and ball-winning never waned, the smiling Paraguayan found the net just twice in the 16 league matches leading up to the contest against Columbus.
The slight dip in form has seen Miggy take a back seat to Martinez in the headlines, and Atlanta has struggled to break down compact, conservative defenses at times this season. But Atlanta may now have both of its stars finding their form as they head into the final stretch of the season.
Villalba gets in the act
The cherry on top for Atlanta is that “Tito” Villalba also got on the scoresheet, meaning that all three of the team’s original designated players put one in the net for the first time since a 3-1 win over DC United on March 11. The trio also combined on the final goal, with Villalba playing the ball into Martinez at the top of the penalty area and the striker teeing it up for Almiron.
Villalba’s goal, which stood up as the game-winner, may have been the prettiest of the bunch. He collected the ball at midfield and ran away from one defender and past two more before beating Crew keeper Zach Steffen to his left.
The goal represents a season-high point for Villalba, who was slowed by injuries to start the season and has managed just four goals in 2018 after netting 13 last season.
With Tito healthy, Barco seemingly welcomed back into the fold, and Nagbe due back from injury in September, Atlanta may be peaking at just the right time.