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Football is back. Maybe not the football we’re counting on, but it’s the only football we have right now. You know, that other version, the one many of us call soccer, the one where any physical contact is followed by a re-creation of the death scene from “Julius Caesar.”

Atlanta United returned to the field Saturday night. In something called the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando – that great petri dish of a city in the experiment of playing sports through a pandemic. This first game back for United was delayed by a lightning storm. Whatever else the "bubble" is that these players must now function within, it is clearly not weatherproof.

Saturday night provided two much-needed experiences: A chance to once again view live sports and the opportunity to employ the word “United” in a story – both rarities in troubled, divisive times.

As a way of trying to jumpstart its long-delayed season, the MLS came up with this inventive tournament modeled on a World Cup format, only without all the corruption.

There were no fans in attendance in United’s opener against its nemesis, the New York Red Bulls. The Fox broadcast, however, dubbed in the background of whistles and other vague noises that the younger folk might make if only their grandparents would allow them to stand shoulder-to-shoulder again. The effect of this enhanced audio, as it was called, was just the sort of distorted reality you expect coming from a Disney property.

Video images of fans from both teams flashed on the big screen lest these fellows forget just how goofy all of us on the other side of the pitch really are. The Atlanta media covered this big game back from 440 miles away because you weren’t going to get much closer even if you were there due to the coronavirus rules in play.

Obviously confused early about social distancing rules, United defenders opted to stay as far away from the Red Bulls Florian Valot as possible as he received a long, arcing pass from the redoubtable Kaku. The grateful Frenchman eased to the front of the United goal and scored before this night was five minutes old. There’s your scoring summary.

It would have been worse if United goalie Brad Guzan wasn’t making more kick saves than Martin Brodeur in his prime. The best legs of the night for United belonged to Guzan and Pity Martinez, who ran all night through the wet, warm Florida air with boundless energy and purpose, earning every last bit of his reduced pay.

It has been nearly four months since soccer shut down along with all else and in case you’ve forgotten, Atlanta United is supposed to be pretty good. A champion in just its second year of life, as a matter of fact, and a threat to do it again. It’s a team that had scored at least one goal in its last 27 games, dating back to more than a year ago. But now getting beaten 1-0 by the Red Bulls – which holds an almost sinister 6-1-2 lifetime record against United – has put the MLS’s most envied franchise in an unenviable position of scrambling to make it out of group stage play. Two more games remain in the stage. And keep in mind that these games all factor into the regular season, if, indeed, there is going to be one.

United itself has not forgotten who it is and what is expected of it. Intact afterward was a haughty refusal to get too concerned about the results of this single match.

“We know we have to win games, that’s what Atlanta stands for,” said United coach Frank de Boer. “We gonna do that the next time.”

“Nothing changes,” said midfielder Mo Adams. “We’re Atlanta United. We’re expected to win every game we play. This doesn’t change anything – play the two games to win and get out of the group stage.”

Guzan made it as abundantly clear as one can through a Zoom press conference that he was none too thrilled by the defense in front of him. Too many lapses in marking various dangerous Red Bulls. At least one too many, to be sure.

And offensively, no one could quite close the deal. George Bello clanked one off the crossbar. Adam Jahn put all his 6-foot-3 to use, nearly heading in a cross in the dying seconds. Manuel Castro had a lovely opportunity but instead kicked the ball off his own ankle, bless his heart. And somewhere United’s great finisher, the injured Josef Martinez, punched a wall.

Beyond result, it was just plain reassuring to see people running around again on a green field, even if you don’t truly get the purpose of their exertion.

As Guzan put it: “We’re very fortunate to be in the position we are and to have the job that we do, if you want to call it that. We’re extremely lucky. So, to be able to go out and play games, that’s where we get our joy.

“To go through what the entire world has gone through the last four months and to now be able to step back on the field and compete, that’s what it’s all about. It felt good.”

United is scheduled to return to Thursday to one of those Disney fields more accustomed to hosting youngsters at play. The opponent is FC Cincinnati. Game time – honestly – is nine in the morning. Undetermined is whose parents are in charge of bringing the juice boxes and snacks for the game.

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