Atlanta United Brad Guzman attempts a save against Toronto in the regular-season finale Sunday.
Photo: Eric Rossitch
Photo: Eric Rossitch

For the first time, Atlanta United falls short of expectations

As bare as it is, Atlanta’s trophy case really could have used this prize. What this one lacked in popularity, it more than made up for in unique design.

They don’t make trophies like this anymore, and probably haven’t since the 15th century. Maybe you could pick up this kind of thing at a medieval festival – along with a turkey leg and, if you really wanted to experience the Middle Ages, a case of the Bubonic plague. Otherwise, the only other way to win it is to finish with the best MLS regular season record.   

But, alas, the Supporters’ Shield – a lovely actual silver shield – will not be Atlanta’s this year. That goes to the New York Red Bulls. I only hope that big, jaded city can appreciate the singularity of this prize even fractionally as much as Atlanta would have. 

Atlanta United lost the shield along with its final regular-season game – 4-1 to last year’s Shield winner, Toronto. That coupled with New York’s victory over Orlando vaulted the Red Bulls to the top of the standings.

Behold, the first real disappointment in what has been an idyllic first two years of MLS soccer in Atlanta. (You couldn’t really call last season’s early ouster from the playoffs a legit disappointment, could you? Not from an expansion team).

This is the first sensation of falling short to come from the soccer branch of the Arthur Blank sporting empire.

It would have been so good, on the week that United manager Gerardo Martino announced he would not return next season, to generate some happy news. The most lopsided loss since falling 4-0 in the opener way back in March hardly qualifies as the kind of cute-cat-video finish to the schedule that this team needed.

Soccer being a sport and Atlanta being Atlanta, you might be fighting the urge now to say this is only the first of many disappointments to come. Keep fighting it. Don’t go there, not yet. Atlanta United hasn’t yet earned that cynicism.

Mind you, Atlanta United already had clinched a first-round playoff bye. Whatever happened Sunday was not going to affect its path to the trophy that really matters in the league, the MLS Cup. 

Whatever the players might say afterward Sunday – how they process this loss and move on – don’t doubt the Shield’s importance to them. They talked it up quite grandly before leaving for Toronto.

“The ultimate goal is MLS Cup, that’s the biggest trophy in MLS,” team captain Michael Parkhurst said. “But there are steps along the way and there are trophies along the way. The Supporters’ Shield is the next on the list, the next goal that’s accomplishable for us.

“It would be the first trophy in club history which would be awesome. We want to win it. We know we’ve already secured a first-round bye and that’s important. We’ve talked about it for weeks. We want to go out there and win Supporters’ Shield.”

Added goalkeeper Brad Guzan: “When you dissect what the Supporters’ Shield is, it is the best team over the course of an entire season. You look at the playoffs and how the playoffs work – I think for us it would take five games (to win the MLS Cup) as opposed to 34 league games (to win the Supporters’ Shield). You look at what that means, it’s a pretty big accomplishment to say that over the course of 34 games and 10 months we were the best team in the league.”

The Red Bulls now can stake that claim, and have the record for most points in a season to prove it.

Winning the most in the regular season guarantees nothing more in soccer than it does in any other sport. Of the 22 previous Supporters’ Shield winners, only seven have gone on to win the MLS Cup (including Toronto last year).

So, it is Atlanta United’s job now to get healed up for the playoffs, especially their most dynamic player, Miguel Almiron, out Sunday with a grouchy hamstring. Time to re-calibrate after a bad weekend.

There’s work to do and hopes to feed. The same site, FiveThirtyEight.com, that ran the numbers and predicted United would lose the Supporters’ Shield on the last day had prior to Sunday ranked United and the Red Bulls as co-favorites to win the MLS Cup. There remains everything to play for.

It’s just that a cool sport gives out some cool stuff.

That shield would have looked so good in the trophy case. 

About the Author

Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer writes sports features for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covers a wide range of sports and topics.
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