ATLANTA (AP) — Atlanta United is back in a familiar spot.
Pressing the attack right from the start, the reigning MLS Cup champions scored a pair of own-goals in the first half and got a penalty kick from Josef Martinez to finish off a 3-0 victory over the LA Galaxy on Saturday, pushing the reigning MLS Cup champions into a tie for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
"This is the goal," first-year coach Frank de Boer said. "We want to be on top. We want to be the hunted."
United (12-9-3) pulled even with Philadelphia at 39 points, stretching its home unbeaten streak to 10 games in a matchup between two of the league's top teams. Atlanta has never allowed a goal to the Galaxy, recording three straight shutouts since entering the league in 2017.
With the upper deck opened up and another MLS record crowd of 72,548 rocking Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the home team responded with one of its best performances in what has been an up-and-down season.
The Galaxy (12-10-1) provided plenty of help.
In the 23rd minute, Florentin Pogba retrieved a long ball at the Atlanta end of the field and worked it up to Ezequiel Barco racing through the midfield. Barco slid a nifty pass to Pity Martinez, who broke into the clear down the right side. Martinez tried to work the ball in front, where both Barco and Josef Martinez were lurking, but the pass struck defender Dave Romney, sliding across the area on his back, and deflected past helpless goalkeeper David Bingham.
Atlanta made it 2-0 with a nearly identical play in the 43rd. This time, Justin Meram sprinted free down the left side and looked to get the ball to Josef Martinez, who was open in front of the net. Defender Giancarlo Gonzalez slid across to block the pass and wound up doing the same thing as Romney — deflecting the ball past Bingham.
"Some would say, 'Ahh, it's unlucky on their part and lucky for Atlanta,'" Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. "No, that's hard work and being in the right spot at the right time, the good delivery of the crosses. That's down to us. That's us creating our own luck."
Indeed, United had plenty of chances to score a goal of its own in the opening half. Barco put a blistering ball off the crossbar, while Pity Martinez had a shot ricochet off the far post after Bingham just got a piece of it.
Barco, Josef Martinez and Pity Martinez have rarely gotten a chance to play together this season because of injuries and international commitments.
The trio showed what they're capable of by creating numerous chances in the Galaxy's zone.
"Suddenly," de Boer said, "the puzzle looks like it could work."
Atlanta sealed the victory in the 72nd after a video review showed that Emerson Hyndman was knocked down in the area by Gonzalez while going for a rebound after Bingham made a brilliant save to deny Josef Martinez.
That sent Martinez to the spot for the penalty kick, which he ripped inside the left post for his 18th goal of the season while Bingham dove to the right.
The big crowd was denied a chance to see the Galaxy's top scorer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swedish striker, who has 16 goals, was suspended for the match for an accumulation of yellow cards after picking up his fifth in a 4-0 loss at Portland last weekend.
LA also was missing another key player, defender Diego Polenta, who was suspended for picking up red card after the final whistle against the Timbers.
"Without Ibra, we lose a lot," Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. "But we know it can happen during the year when Ibra cannot play, like today, and we need to figure it out."
The Galaxy needed all the help it could get against Atlanta, which has outscored LA 9-0 in their three meetings.
Josef Martinez had the spotlight all to himself, and he delivered his 68th league goal over the last three seasons, matching Bradley Wright Phillips (2014-16) for the most prolific three-year scoring run in MLS history. With 10 games left in the regular season, Martinez should easily claim that mark all to himself.
The 2018 MVP also has scored in nine straight league games, matching the mark initially set by Diego Valeri in 2017 and equaled last season by Martinez.
"The important thing is to win," Martinez said through a translator. "Those are just numbers."
Atlanta United has a quick turnaround before traveling to Orlando for the U.S. Open Cup semifinals Tuesday night.
United has placed heavy importance on the normally obscure tournament, seeing it as perhaps the best chance to return to the CONCACAF Champions League in 2020.
Atlanta would host the final if it beats Orlando. The Open Cup winner receives one of four U.S. berths in the Champions League.
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