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ATLANTA — Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez, the 2018 South American footballer of the year who joined Atlanta United for a Major League Soccer record transfer fee in January, did not feature in the Five Stripes’ 1-0 MLS Cup playoff win over the New England Revolution Saturday. Asked about his decision to sit El Pity, manager Frank de Boer left open the possibility Martínez could return to the starting lineup in this postseason. Everything de Boer said before that made it clear Martínez has started his last game for Atlanta in 2019.
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“Right now, I think, with the three in midfield of Emerson Hyndman, Jeff [Larentowicz] and Darlington [Nagbe] is a good balance,” de Boer told reporters. “Then, I have one spare spot left in that position and that’s either [Ezequiel] Barco or Pity. Now I’m choosing for Barco, and he is doing well. I have choices always, but for me, I didn’t have any reasons to change him for Pity.”
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De Boer played the same lineup — save for Michael Parkhurst replacing injured center back Miles Robinson — that defeated New England on the final day of MLS’ regular season two weeks ago. The manager has made it clear the midfield balance of Hyndman, Larentowicz and Nagbe is more important than fielding two dynamic players in Barco and Martínez. Atlanta’s No. 10 can play passes unmatched by anyone else on the team, but his defensive engine is far too inconsistent — non-existent at times — for de Boer’s liking in a single-elimination tournament.
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ATLANTA — Atlanta United’s MLS Cup title defense came to a surprising halt Wednesday night. The Five Stripes fell 2-1 to Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Substitute Nick DeLeon scored a 78th-minute winner for the Reds, evading three Atlanta defenders at the top of the penalty area. Franco Escobar, Jeff Larentowicz and Julian Gressel appeared to have DeLeon covered, but everyone backed off after the forward completed a circular dribbling move, and he fired from distance into the top corner. Darlington Nagbe was behind the play, slow to get up from a hard challenge.
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“Obviously we were upset, we think it’s a foul on Darlington, and they catch us on a break,” Michael Parkhurst said in the locker room after the crushing defeat. “We get guys back. We do well to slow up their counterattack right on top of the box on DeLeon and have a few guys around him. I don’t know what happens. Everybody thinks that somebody else is going to stay with the ball and we start to pick up runners. For half a second we let him free, and he takes a great shot. We should have had more pressure on the ball there.”
“Well, I think Pity is always a player for the No. 10 position, and Hyndman is one of the three midfielders,” de Boer said. “I think you can play with Barco and Pity like we did versus Minnesota [in the U.S. Open Cup final], but the discipline that Emerson does and what he brings defensively in our box, that’s the balance that I’m searching for.
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“Of course, you can play with players like [Martínez], but it’s a big risk. I know that Emerson is very comfortable on the ball, and he combined well with Barco and Darlington, and they are three players who are very comfortable playing in small triangles. So, I had no reason to change. In the future it could change, but right now for me this is the best balance in the midfield. I look at the opponent always, and maybe next time it will be different.”
Martínez got off to a wretched start this season and criticized his manager in the media. He has improved in recent months and delivered some big moments for his team, including winning goals against D.C. United in regular-season play and Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final. In his last five appearances, Martínez has two goals and two assists. His long history of playing well in important games has netted 11 trophies in his career. Still, Martínez has never lived up to the hype that came with his price tag. And with the season on the line in every game going forward, de Boer does not trust Martínez’s positives to outweigh his negatives.
“It was just a decision that Frank made,” Julian Gressel said of Martínez’s absence. “It was just that mindset from the coaching staff and we’ve trained like that all week. Pity was obviously upset at first, but today, he did a good job being up for it and being a good teammate supporting us. I’m sure we’re going to need him down the stretch.”
No doubt, Atlanta will need Martínez to offer his support as a good teammate. Perhaps he will be called upon to make an impact in a substitute appearance. But de Boer seemingly has settled on a lineup that he trusts to get a result. It is hard to imagine he will change his mind.