Editor’s note: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution opted not to attend the resumption of the MLS season in Orlando amid the COVID-19 pandemic. League safety precautions severely limit the AJC’s in-depth coverage of Atlanta United. The following report has been compiled from television broadcast and video conference interviews.
Looking very much like a team that hadn’t played in four months, Atlanta United lost its first game in the MLS tournament to the New York Red Bulls 1-0 on Saturday in Orlando. The shutout snapped Atlanta United’s streak of consecutive games with a goal at 27.
The Five Stripes (2-1-0) were undone on defense by a Florian Valot goal when he was left unmarked in the center of the field, one of several times that the defense was caught out. Brad Guzan came up big the other times with three tough saves. Atlanta United fell to 3-14-8 when trailing at the half.
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On offense, the absence of Josef Martinez was noticeable. Manuel Castro, a winger playing striker, missed two Martinez-like opportunities early in the second half. The highlight for rest of the game consisted of a crossbar hit by George Bello and a scattering of 24 crosses that couldn’t be converted. The team finished with four shots on goal, with only one by Adam Jahn in the seventh minute of stoppage time that required any saves similar to Guzan’s.
“Quite pleased how they played, but we have to start directly from the beginning,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “We were very close at the end but unfortunately it wasn’t given to us, a draw.”
Atlanta United’s next game in the group stage will be at 9 a.m. Thursday against Cincinnati. If the team doesn’t get three points its probability of advancing out of the group and into the knockout stage will be very low.
De Boer’s starting 11 was curious because it didn’t include Ezequiel Barco, who picked up a minor injury in training during the week. De Boer said two days ago that everyone on the roster except Josef Martinez was healthy. Using a 3-4-3 formation that didn’t work well last year at the beginning of the season, Guzan started in goal with a centerback trio of Miles Robinson, making his season debut, Fernando Meza and Franco Escobar. The midfielders were Brooks Lennon, Emerson Hyndman, Mo Adams and Bello, making his debut. The front three were Pity Martinez, Matheus Rossetto and Manuel Castro, of which the last two were making their first starts. Castro played as the striker in place of Josef Martinez, who is out for the season after suffering a knee injury in the opening league game at Nashville.
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Kickoff was delayed by 37 minutes because of storms and because that seems to be the way this year is going.
The Red Bulls took a 1-0 lead in the fourth minute when Valot, unmarked in the center of the pitch 30 yards from goal, received a pass from Kaku that split through at least five Atlanta United players. One-on-one with Guzan, Valot slotted his shot into the left corner. It appeared that either Meza or Bello were out of position because neither marked Valot.
“My initual reaction is probably Fernando is too far over,” Guzan said. “We get sucked to the ball and our spacing isn’t good enough.
“Past games, their fullbacks on the weak side will bomb forward as well as their interior midfielders. With one ball we were in trouble. Our spacing wasn’t good enough.”
Atlanta United began to find a rhythm by using long diagonal passes to go over New York’s lines for wingers to run onto. The result were seven crosses back across the penalty box with none resulting in a shot on goal in the first 20 minutes.
But it was the Red Bulls that created the next good chance when Daniel Royer was left unmarked at the back post on a free kick. Royer’s shot was saved by Guzan in the 25th minute.
Mic’ed up by FOX during a hydration break in the 31st minute, de Boer told his team it had to find the second ball to Castro when the Red Bulls pressed. Interviewed by FOX, he said the team wasn’t paying attention on the Red Bulls’ two good chances. He said he was satisfied by the majority of what the team did.
Pity Martinez put the team’s first shot on goal, easily saved, in the 38th minute. Three minutes later Bello was put through by Martinez but his left-footed shot slammed off the crossbar and back into play. It was the best scoring opportunity the team had to that point.
Guzan came up big against in the 44th minute when he rushed out to stop Kaku. Again, two Red Bulls players were unmarked. Either could have received the pass and shot.
Castro’s best chance – heck, Atlanta United’s best chance -- came in the 48th minute when he got away from Aaron Long but his right-footed shot from close range bounced off his left ankle and went out of bounds.
Castro, not a natural striker, was gifted another chance in the 53rd minute from a cross by Lennon but again his shot was nowhere close to being on goal. Barco soon came on for Castro.
“Football is a game of mistakes,” de Boer said. “The team that makes less mistakes wins. We have to improve in that.”
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