Following its 4-1 loss at Toronto Sunday in the most important game in Atlanta United’s history, is it fair to say that the team struggles in important games?
Defining important is a good start.
Against Toronto, the importance was obvious and tangible: the Supporters’ Shield, which would have been Atlanta United’s first trophy had it defeated a team that had nothing to play for.
But in other games, the importance was more about confidence-building and status: a 3-2 collapse in the final minutes against Dallas, which was the best team in the West at the time.
A 3-1 loss at D.C. United, another up-and-coming team in the East.
A 2-0 hammering at New York Red Bulls, a loss that opened the door for the Red Bulls to pip the Five Stripes in the finale for the Shield.
Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said on Sunday that there were no commonalities in those losses.
Go back further: Losses to Sporting KC, now the best team in the West, and New York Red Bulls, both at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the middle of the season.
A 4-0 loss at Houston in the season-opening game, a game that was supposed to set the tone for the season.
Last year’s loss to Columbus in the playoffs.
There are enough games to say that the team may struggle in big games.
But its record this season against the teams that will compete in the playoffs is a respectable 8-5-4. The team lost seven games all season.
So, struggling is not something that’s built into its DNA because there are also logical explanations for each:
Against Toronto, the team was missing Miguel Almiron, arguably the league’s best player.
Against Dallas, the team was undone by a lack of concentration and communication between starters and subs in the final minutes.
Losing there, and at D.C. and at New York can be explained because playing on the road in MLS is tough. D.C. was feeding off the energy of the crowd in its new stadium, something Atlanta United supporters can easily understand because it experienced the same last year.
The Red Bulls may be the best team in MLS history.
Against Houston, the team was forced to shuffle its lineup because of injuries.
Red cards didn’t help in losses at home to KC and Red Bulls.
The good news for Atlanta United is it has at least two more opportunities to show again how mentally and physically tough it is.
How Atlanta United responds when it faces either NYCFC, D.C. United or Columbus in first game of the Eastern Conference semifinals will be of the highest importance.
It must show that it has shaken off whatever affected it in a listless display at Toronto. It must show that the 69 points it earned this season weren’t the stuff of “Flat track bullies,” as some have written about the team.