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Atlanta United dropped by NYCFC in MLS East showdown

During the first half at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx, New York, on Wednesday September 25, 2019. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Atlanta United)
During the first half at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx, New York, on Wednesday September 25, 2019. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Atlanta United)

Atlanta United’s chances of finishing first in the MLS East ended with a lackluster 4-1 loss to NYCFC on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium.

What was supposed to be a showdown of the East’s top two teams instead turned into an early blowout void of drama and raising questions about the team’s mentality because it once again was more reactive than proactive in key moments.

“We want to play in big games, this is a big game,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “This is a big game. You have to also play with a big mentality. That we didn’t show in the first half.”

» MORE: Brad Guzan critical of team's performance

With the loss, Atlanta United (17-12-3) can finish no higher than second because it trails NYCFC by seven points with two games remaining. With second-place still in play, Atlanta United will play at Montreal on Sunday and will host New England on the final day of the regular season.

Playing without the injured Josef Martinez, Atlanta United's offense figured to be the team's weak spot on Wednesday because the starting lineup had a combined 11 goals this season. Instead, the defense put in a migraine-inducing performance similar to those at Toronto, at Chicago and at LAFC earlier this season with three goals allowed in the first 34 minutes.

Each of the goals was the result of a NYCFC player winning a one-on-one matchup, which didn’t please de Boer. Alexandru Mitrita was the standout for NYCFC with three goals, the first hat-trick scored against Atlanta United.

Atlanta United kept competing and avoided the shutout with a goal from Pity Martinez, but the team could rarely find a consistent rhythm and didn’t win enough duels in the first half, a talking point from de Boer all season.

"We were chasing shadows," goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. "They are a good team and we were nowhere near on the same level as them today."

De Boer made what most would consider unusual lineup choices for the game. The injury to Josef Martinez meant that Brandon Vazquez started at striker. De Boer elected to change both wingbacks with Franco Escobar in for Julian Gressel, who said on Monday that he was fine after also suffering an injury against San Jose, and Hector Villalba in for Justin Meram at left wingback. The left side of Atlanta United’s formation also included centerback Flo Pogba as part of a three-man backline that included Miles Robinson and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. Brad Guzan started in goal with Darlington Nagbe, Eric Remedi and Emerson Hyndman as the central midfielders, and Pity Martinez playing underneath Vazquez.

De Boer said Gressel was still dealing with a calf issue related to the injury, and he thought Escobar could matchup well with Mitrita. De Boer said he wanted to give Villalba minutes to get into a rhythm.

NYCFC was also dealing with injuries to key players because Anton Tinnerholm was out with a concussion, and striker Heber and midfielder Keaton Parks also didn’t start.

NYCFC took a 1-0 lead in the 14th minute when Mitrita dribbled past a weak challenge from Gonzalez Pirez, skipped past Remedi and then curled in a right-footed shot from about 18 yards. The sequence started with Villalba losing the ball on the opposite end of the field and NYCFC starting a counterattack.

That wasn’t good because Atlanta United was 0-8-1 when allowing the first goal this season.

“We concede one, look at our record and the amount of wins that have come via clean sheets and the amount of wins that have come after we’ve conceded goals,” Guzan said. “Not good enough. Not good enough. We concede one. Heads drop. Mentality goes.”

Mitrita scored again in the 23rd minute with a right-footed shot off Guzan’s near post and in. Mitrita again beat Gonzalez Pirez to get into enough space from about 12 yards out to shoot.

Mitrita completed his hat trick in the 34th minute when all he had to do was turn home a hard shot from Ismael Tajouri-Shradi that bounced off Guzan’s hands. Tajouri-Shradi pounced on a turnover by Robinson, who had trouble trapping a long pass from Villaba, and dribbled across the field with Robinson in pursuit. Gonzalez Pirez moved to close down Tajouri-Shradi. Gonzalez Pirez cut off Robinson’s angle, so he stopped pursuing, but didn’t move with Tajouri-Shradi quickly enough. Tajouri-Shradi used the time and space to shoot from about 17 yards away.

“We were reacting the first half and not anticipating,” de Boer said. “The first three goals, it’s like a long ball, more of a counterattack than a build-up. Then it’s about mentality and winning duels. In the first half they were winning those duels and creating chances.”

Atlanta United cut its deficit to 3-1 on a penalty kick by Martinez, his fifth goal this season. The penalty kick was the result of Vazquez being taken down in the box by Maxime Chanot in the 52nd minute. Vazquez was running onto a pass from Martinez, and suddenly turned back inside after beating Chanot the ball, forcing him to make the late tackle.

NYCFC added one more goal in the 87th minute when Heber beat Gonzalez Pirez and rounded Guzan.

“We weren’t good the moment we stepped on the pitch,” Guzan said. “They were better than us in every aspect of the game in the first half. We talked about it being a playoff game. We talked about it being a real game. We talked about knowing they were going to come out flying in the first minute. We weren’t good enough.”

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