With Josef Martinez cheering on his teammates from a luxury box, Atlanta United passed its first test since losing one of Major League Soccer’s most dynamic players.
Ezequiel Barco and Emerson Hyndman scored to lead injury plagued United to its second straight victory, 2-1 over FC Cincinnati on Saturday night.
Martinez, the 2018 league MVP, is expected to miss much of the season after tearing up his right knee in the MLS opener last weekend at Nashville.
“He’s always been the focal point for us,” Hyndman said. “We’ve got to figure that out. But so far, we’ve got two wins out of two. We just want to continue that.”
Adam Jahn started in Martinez’s familiar striker spot, but it was Barco and Pity Martinez largely picking up the slack for the 2018 MVP.
“When an important player is injured or not there anymore, other players feel a responsibility to step in that gap,” coach Frank de Boer said. “I think Pity is one of those players, and Barco too. They feel like, ‘Hey, we’re the guys who have to lift up this team.’”
United also was missing injured defenders Franco Escobar and Miles Robinson. To make matters worse, Laurence Wyke went out late in the first half after taking a blow to the head, forcing Atlanta to send in 18-year-old George Campbell for his MLS debut.
“If you’re on the roster, you’ve got to be ready,” de Boer said. “He looked a little bit nervous, but I was also proud of his debut.”
In the 21st minute, Pity Martinez set up Barco for the first home goal of the year. Settling a towering pass down the right sideline, Martinez zigzagged toward the Cincinnati goal with Kendall Waston trying desperately to mark him.
Just short of the end line, Martinez delivered a pass that got past Waston, another defender and keeper Spencer Richey before Barco buried it from right in front of the net.
Atlanta extended its lead in the 55th. While United was controlling play just outside the area, Hyndman slipped inside, took a no-look pass from Barco and ripped a shot to the short side that eluded a diving Richey.
Martinez had a good chance to score in the 17th minute. Atlanta played keep-away in the midfield with a series of quick, precise passes before finally spotting an opening, sending through a long ball to the Argentinian streaking into the area.
Martinez got off a shot, but Richey deflected it wide of the goal with a kick save.
Stymied much of the game to create any sort of offense, Cincinnati finally broke through in the 65th on Yuya Kubo’s veering shot from about 22 yards out.
Keeper Brad Guzan was barking instructions and appeared to get caught flat-footed when Kubo suddenly ripped one toward the right post. Guzan leaned the opposite way and then helplessly fell back on his heels as Kubo’s shot sailed past him.
Accustomed to being the center of attention, Josef Martinez was on crutches and merely a spectator among the crowd of 69,301.
He wasn’t forgotten, though.
United supporters chanted his name in unison in the seventh minute — in tribute to Martinez’s uniform number — and he acknowledged the gesture from his seat high above the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
With a big game coming up Wednesday night against Mexican powerhouse Club América in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, Atlanta subbed out Pity Martinez in the 67th minute. Brazilian newcomer Matheus Rossetto came on to play his first game for United after resolving immigration issues.
Down the stretch, Guzan made a sprawling save to preserve the lead and United held on to collect another three points.
Next up: a trip to one of soccer’s most storied venues, Estadio Azteca, to face a team that United beat last summer to win the Campeones Cup.
Atlanta is eager to atone for a dismal performance against another Mexican team, Monterrey, in last year’s CONCACAF quarterfinals. United was essentially eliminated with a 3-0 loss in the away leg.
“We have to really play as a team,” de Boer said. “It’s going to be a tough game, that’s for sure. But I think we can get a good result.”