Atlanta United picked up their first win of the 2021 MLS season on Saturday night as they defeated the Chicago Fire 3-1 at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
An absolute wonder-goal from Ezequiel Barco opened the scoring for the hosts before the Fire equalized right after the half-time break through Luka Stojanović. An own-goal from Johan Kappelhof would give Atlanta back the lead, though, and a late goal from Emerson Hyndman sealed the win and all three points for the Five Stripes.
Story of the match
After a relatively even opening to the contest, Atlanta took the lead in spectacular fashion. A free-kick from Ezequiel Barco was hit right into the wall, but the ball fortunately bounced back to him. He decided to have another go, and his second attempt was a much better one, as his shot from distance flew into the back of the net off the underside of the crossbar.
The Fire nearly responded in equally spectacular fashion. A cross into the area picked out Robert Berić, who went for a clever first-time flick on the turn. It almost worked, but the effort pinged off the crossbar and out of play.
Both teams then had huge chances to score the next goal. First Barco had a deflected shot hit the post, and even though the rebound fell right to Emerson Hyndman, he couldn’t convert from close range. Then, up the other end of the field, a cross eventually made its way to Chinonso Offor, whose low shot wasn’t dealt with properly by Brad Guzan at first. However, the ball was eventually cleared away despite Berić's efforts.
Chicago equalized moments into the start of the second half. A low cross from Boris Sekulić somehow rolled past a number of Atlanta defenders before falling to Luka Stojanović, and he was able to easily slot home from only a few yards out to score his second goal of the season.
The hosts responded well, restoring their lead in the 66th minute. The goal was effectively given to them by the Fire, to be fair, as Bobby Shuttleworth made a mess of a cross whipped into the area, hitting the ball off of Johan Kappelhof before watching it roll into the back of his own net.
Berić had another moment of magic with about 10 minutes to go. He reacted instinctively to a loose ball in the area, flicking it towards goal with the outside of his boot. He caught Guzan off guard, and the effort did fly over his head, but it ultimately bounced off of the post and into the goalkeeper's grateful arms.
Atlanta put the contest to bed soon after that close call. Shuttleworth seemed to have made up for his earlier error by producing a great save to deny Jake Mulraney, but Hyndman was on hand to somehow get the rebound over the line at the second time of asking.
That would prove to be the final major moment of the contest, as the hosts held on to clinch their first league win of the season.
Early season struggles
This was far from the prettiest match you’ll ever see.
It very much looked like the second MLS game of the campaign for both teams. Each committed errors at the back, which is what led to two of the goals on the night. Neither created a whole lot either, with the aforementioned screamer from Barco really saving what was a poor game of football.
The main difference between the two sides was that the Fire just made more mistakes. They weren’t too bad, but you can’t shoot yourself in the foot that many times and expect to get away with it, especially in an environment like Atlanta’s.
There’s still potential for both, though.
Atlanta have picked up four points from their first two MLS games, and they have advanced to the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League. They were shocking last season, but it seems like they’re ready to return to the playoffs this year.
For the Fire, there’s still a few things to be happy about. The offense looks better, especially with a fully fit Luka Stojanović in midfield. If they can fix their defensive issues sooner rather than later, then they might be a team to keep an eye on in the Eastern Conference.
Each needs to learn from this contest, though, as making the same mistakes will only cost them in the future.
Man of the match - Ezequiel Barco
No one really stood out on the night, but Ezequiel Barco put on a solid showing while scoring a goal of the season contender, so he’ll get the nod here.
The 22-year-old hasn’t had the best time in MLS. Arriving to plenty of hype and fanfare, Barco has been a bit of a disappointment since Atlanta signed him back in early 2018. He just hasn’t met expectations, but there’s a chance that he might finally be turning things around.
Barco has been superb to start this campaign, impressing during his team’s early CONCACAF Champions League games. He’s carried that form into the start of the MLS season, and he’s become a key part of this Atlanta team as a result.
Constantly a presence on the ball, the Argentine uses his pace and dribbling ability to create offensively. He’s a nightmare for opposition defenders, as his versatility allows him to float around the final third and cause havoc from almost anywhere on the pitch.
The goal was just a beautiful cherry on top off another promising performance. If Barco can keep playing like this alongside a returning Josef Martínez, then Atlanta could become a contender once again.