Obviously bored by the sheer ease of recent victories, numbed by the effortless climb to first place, Atlanta United decided to challenge itself Wednesday.
Hmmm, this loaded team wondered, how to make things interesting? Play blindfolded? Dress out in penny loafers? Perhaps engage in a drinking game – everybody shoot an Irish Car Bomb each time a player falls to the turf, feigning agony?
Oh, I know, let’s have our goalkeeper commit a soccer felony, pick up the first red card of his life, sub in a rosy-cheeked kid right off the farm and play the best team in the West a man down.
Unintentionally, all this United did Wednesday night at home. With predictable result – Sporting Kansas City 2, Atlanta United 0. Gone was the eight-game unbeaten streak. Discovered this night was the limit of this team’s early-season supremacy. Turns out that it is not so good that it can play a team of Kansas City’s caliber on just 20 legs and expect to look like a contender in full.
United’s goalkeeper Brad Guzan could not remember ever before receiving a red card. A perfect record was ruined 34 minutes into the highly anticipated game against the best in the west. With Khiry Shelton bearing down on him, Guzan went out for a meeting just beyond the penalty box. The 6-foot-4 keeper slid into the 6-3 attacker, sending Shelton flying. Somewhere, Dan Quinn smiled. Guzan had earned his first red card and probably a couple points on his driver’s license.
Was it the right call? “No se, (I don’t know),” United head coach Gerardo Martino said, not really wanting to debate that point.
United was left to remove one of its players from the field while replacing Guzan in goal. Only both of United’s regular back-ups were out with an injury. Since when did soccer practice become more hazardous than coal mining?
The last man standing was the 22-year-old Paul Christensen, just called up from the Atlanta United 2 minors on what MLS calls “a short-term agreement in a case of extreme hardship.” Someone someday will have to inform this league what constitutes extreme hardship – but that is for another day.
Thrown into the fray against one of the best teams at this professional level was the 70th pick in last year’s MLS “SuperDraft,” the West Coast Conference goalkeeper of the year at Portland University. His career record with Atlanta United 2: 0-1-1.
Christensen swallowed his nerves and gave his all. His first save roused great cheers from the 44,000 in the house, as he came outside the penalty box to meet the dangerous Johnny Russell. He robbed Russell, blocking the shot with his stomach, displaying abs of steal.
Still, there was the inevitable impression that Atlanta United had traded Mr. Clean for Richie Cunningham of Happy Days.
In the 67th minute, Daniel Salloi broke the scoreless tie, bending a shot from 20 yards out past the sprawled Christensen.
From there, Atlanta United, even short-handed, was forced to press the action a bit more, leaving itself open to a second goal that meant little in the end.
There was a long list of other travails Atlanta United faced Wednesday.
An early goal by Josef Martinez was disallowed either because it was too beautiful or because it was offside – I’ll never be sure.
Sporting KC’s goalkeeper Tim Melia twice stoned United on one of its most dependable scoring plays – the Kevin Kratz second-half free kick.
All through the game, Atlanta United was able to exert offensive pressure, even being a man down. But Melia, the MLS keeper of the year last season, kept denying them.
Neither accustomed to nor very good at losing, Martino had a valid point when he declared, “When we were playing 11-on-11, I think we were better than Kansas City.”
It’s pothole season, and this was just a small one in a long road for Atlanta United. There could be another rough patch with a game at Orlando looming Sunday and Guzan ineligible for that one, too.
But there was nothing that happened Wednesday to suggest Atlanta United could not beat Sporting KC at a later date – which would have to be for the MLS Cup.
So long as it doesn’t feel compelled to make the game harder than it has to be, the story could be entirely different that day.