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Atlanta United can’t take advantage of struggling Seattle

Playing in front of the largest crowd in MLS history, Atlanta United disappointingly tied struggling Seattle 1-1 on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in another game complicated by the Video Assistant Referee and replay system. 

Needing three points to stay atop the race for the Supporter’s Shield and ahead of contenders NYCFC, New York Red Bulls and Dallas, the Five Stripes couldn’t take advantage of a red card against Seattle’s Jordan McCrary in the second half that gave them a man advantage. 

“I’m calm with the production of the team today,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said. “It’s difficult to play against a defense that sits so far back and plays so defensively.”

Atlanta United still leads MLS with 41 points, but NYCFC has 40 having played one fewer game, Dallas has 38 points having played two fewer games and New York Red Bulls have 35 having played three fewer games. Atlanta United will host D.C. United on Saturday. Atlanta United is 6-2-3 at home this season.

Atlanta United and Seattle played an opening 20 minutes that probably didn’t thrill either the 72,243 fans in attendance or the FOX network, which put the game on after the World Cup because of its promise of attacking play and lots of goals. Of course, few predicted before the season that Seattle’s offense was going to disappear into the woods of the Pacific Northwest. The Sounders had scored fewer goals (15) than Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez (18). Both totals would change.

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Things then started to get more interesting.

Atlanta United started to get into dangerous positions with Martinez missing to either side of Stefan Frei’s goal.

Martinez, who is 5-7, then squared up to Seattle’s Chad Marshall, who is 6-4, after the big centerback pushed him in the back following a collision near the end line.

Atlanta United couldn’t break though.

Seattle did, thanks to help from the VAR and the replay system.

Franco Escobar jumped and turned his back to block a shot, which hit his arm or hand as it was tucked near his chest. The ball rolled out for a corner kick.

Seattle’s Nicolas Lodeiro refused to take the kick, waiting on referee Baldomero Toledo to talk to the VAR. After several seconds of conversation, Toledo signaled that he was going to watch a replay. He came back and signaled for the penalty. Escobar was given a yellow card after protesting the decision. Lodeiro converted the penalty to give Seattle a 1-0 lead in the 45th minute. It was the second penalty Seattle won this season - tied for the third fewest in MLS. It was the fifth penalty Atlanta has conceded, tied for the third most in MLS.

Though a few of Atlanta United’s players questioned if it was penalty, Martino said it was. Like his players, Martino wondered why it took so long to make a decision. He joked that he missed his dinner because he was waiting on the referee and VAR to arrive at a decision.

Jeff Larentowicz said he knew that something was going to happen because Toledo was talking to the VAR throughout the first half.

“He was on the phone a lot, man. He was on the phone a lot,” Larentowicz said.

All complained that while the penalty against Escobar was called, at least one penalty that would potentially would have benefited Atlanta United was missed. That came when Chris McCann was hauled down in the penalty box in the first half. 

“I got manhandled in the box twice,” McCann said. “There’s no real consistency in it.”

He was also tackled in the penalty box in the second half. 

“What worries me ii not the fact that they missed it,” Martino said. “What worries me is if they did a check and they missed that foul somehow.”

With the lead, Seattle in the second half retreated further into the bunker it established in the first half.

The best way to beat a packed defense is to simply go over it. That’s what Atlanta United did in the 47th minute when Julian Gressel’s chip in the pass was headed by Martinez over Frei, who got caught in a bad position, and into the goal to tie the game, 1-1. It was Martinez’s league-leading 19th goal and Gressel’s eighth assist this season.

Atlanta United played with a man advantage for the final 27 minutes after McCrary, an Atlanta native, received his second yellow card and subsequent red card in the 63rd minute after a poor tackle of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez near midfield.

Atlanta United began to apply more and more pressure. McCann missed from point-blank range in the 70th minute. McCann said he thought that Gonzalez Pirez had scored, so when his shot came off the post he didn’t have a lot of time to react, which was why his shot went over the crossbar. Larentowicz put a header over the bar a minute later.

Going for the win, Martino subbed on striker Romario Williams in place of Escobar in the 79th minute. Martino put Williams with Martinez at the top of the formation.

Williams found Almiron on a counter-attack two minutes later, but his shot went over the bar.

Atlanta United kept attacking, but couldn’t find a winner through seven minutes of injury time. The best chance may have been a penalty claim denied by Toledo when Almiron was hit from behind in the penalty box in the final seconds.

Martino said the team needs to get more players in the penalty box to help Martinez attack crosses. Atlanta United fired in 32 on Sunday.

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