Returning for the first time to the scene of its championship, Atlanta United on Sunday chose to act like it had been here before. When, in fact, where they visited in 2018 was to Atlanta, pretty much undiscovered territory.
The three-year-old franchise went back to work at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a cool, James Dean kind of nod to last season’s MLS championship.
Maybe it didn’t want to set any kind of precedence for being obnoxious, seeing how every soccerphile in town secretly was holding the belief that winning championships is going to be a pretty regular thing, so why go overboard with the first of many?
There was no ring ceremony in advance of the game, although we are assured players will receive appropriate championship jewelry. And, yes, we are told, soccer players get regular rings, as in any other sport, not just toe rings.
The MLS Cup itself was on discreet display at the Benz, when the temptation may have been to parade it around like a holy relic at Easter.
And immediately before the start of the home opener, the team unfurled a tasteful championship banner down at the city-view end of the stadium. The first to ever hang in this building, it looks to be made to draw up and down like a curtain. If any tender Falcons feelings are hurt, if they are prone to going all snowflake at the sight of it, the banner could be raised when the football team is in the building, I guess.
Going understated really was a nice touch — in the pregame.
Going King Kong crazy during the game, though, was an absolute requisite.
There is where the failing began.
Having begun its season with all the flair of a pair of shower slippers, breaking out a kazoo when a procession of trumpets was expected, Atlanta United absolutely had to beat the expansion FC Cincinnati here Sunday.
And it really needed to look dynamic doing it. Because somewhere between the Dec. 9 championship and now, Atlanta United has misplaced its dynamism.
It achieved neither goal. It tied the expansion FC Cincinnati, 1-1. And in the process got not one iota of its swagger back.
“Today feels like a loss,” said the most outwardly frustrated of the defending champions, goalkeeper Brad Guzan. “Last year we weren’t used to losing. It wasn’t in our DNA. We found ways to win games, score goals. This year, that hasn’t been the case so far.”
The first two seasons have been pretty much non-stop parties for Atlanta United fans. Now, how are they to react in the light of such hum-drum stuff? Not well, I suspect. A game that began in celebration of a championship ended with a smattering of boos. How many of those were directed at the home team is unknown, as no one stuck around for a survey.
Not winning is bad. Not playing an attractive, engaging brand of soccer is a mortal sin in these parts.
Atlanta United has awakened slowly to this season. Here seemed an opportunity to shake off the listlessness and an opponent made to inflate self-esteem. It was no time for an ordinary 1-1 draw when the bar had been set well north of ordinary almost from the birth of this team.
Look at what has happened to the supposed offensive beast of its league: It lost its MLS opener 2-0 to D.C. United. And was coming off a 3-0 loss to Monterrey on Wednesday in a CONCACAF competition that has proven to be more a nuisance than anything else. (The sooner Atlanta United is done expending its energies there, the better).
All those zeroes — and even the occasional 1 — are really glaring for a team that led the MLS in goal-scoring last season, and was second in its expansion year. Scoring should be almost an inalienable right for this bunch.
The early lack of goals is a real bad look for a team that has promised to keep faith with its aggressive style even with the importation of a new coach. As a matter of fact, the transition off the championship season has not been seamless. In fact, quite a few seams are showing, what some might call fault lines.
Here in the first stage of a new season, we are left to wonder: Just as Dean Smith was the only person capable of holding the collegiate Michael Jordan under 30 points a game, is Frank de Boer now the only one who can stymie Atlanta United’s attack?
He kept telling us afterward how difficult it is to score against a team that takes a defensive footing on its side of the field. Oddly enough, teams are going to try to take away Atlanta United’s greatest strength. They are not going to step aside, bow from the waist and watch Atlanta United hold a dance party in front of the goal. A team of merit adjusts and scores enough to win, regardless of the obstacles aligned against it.
Again, from Guzan: “At the end of the day it’s 11 guys against 11 guys. We need to find a way to win games, plain and simple. We got to find a way to score goals, got to find a way to defend better, we got to find a way to win.”
Just how much this team may miss the speed and creativity of Miguel Almiron — sold to England like so much coal — is a worthwhile question.
And the foundational coach Tata Martino — making his millions in Mexico — is looking better with each passing minute without a score.
Sunday held the promise of a break-out evening. Just five minutes in, United had its first goal of this MLS season. All the right parts were involved, Julian Gressel setting up MVP Josef Martinez, who buried the ball the top corner of the net from close range.
Surely a rout was on. But then followed ... nothing. No more goals. No real profound scoring chances, for that matter. Only an answer by an expansion team in the 86th minute. (Here we pause for a historical note: Atlanta United did achieve a 0-0 draw as an expansion team in 2017 against the defending champion, Seattle. But it was no normal expansion team. While Cincinnati looks to be quite normal.)
Maybe all those in attendance should have made a bigger fuss Sunday when celebrating last year’s title. For another is not a given, that much is now clear. Winning it all is not as simple as Atlanta United once made it look.
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