Atlanta United missed a chance to clinch a win, earn a spot in the MLS playoffs, and take a lead in the Supporters’ Shield because of a 3-1 loss to D.C. United on Sunday at Audi Field.
Two goals from Luciano Acosta and another by Wayne Rooney offset one from Jeff Larentowicz to snap the Five Stripes’ unbeaten seven-game streak.
“It was just an off night,” Larentowicz said. “It’s not often that we get outplayed. We just weren’t as sharp as we usually are. We had opportunities to score. We had opportunities to defend. We don’t really do either of them well enough tonight.”
The defeat keeps Atlanta United at 54 points, one behind the New York Red Bulls with a game in hand in the race for the Supporters’ Shield. Atlanta United won’t play again until Sept. 15 at Colorado.
Manager Gerardo Martino said he didn’t think there was any extra pressure with what was at stake, though Larentowicz did say it was frustrating.
“I don’t think so, especially because Red Bulls lost,” Martino said.
Facing a team playing its third game in eight days, a rested Atlanta United team simply failed to take advantage of the few chances it created, and consistently allowed D.C. United to get behind its back line to create its chances. Josef Martinez was well-defended and Ezequiel Barco declined to take two shots from tight angles. It was D.C. United’s first win against Atlanta United this season. The Five Stripes won the previous two meetings, 3-1.
Sunday’s starting lineup was the same as it was for last week’s 2-1 win at Orlando. The notable inclusions were Julian Gressel making his second consecutive start at right back, and Barco making his second consecutive start as left midfielder.
On a hot, humid night, made worse by playing on grass that looked thick, tall and therefore slow, D.C. United took a 1-0 lead on a goal from Acosta, who has been a pain in the Five Stripes’ side the past two seasons with four goals in the team’s six meetings. Acosta got behind Atlanta United’s defense, running onto a header from Rooney after a throw-in. With Larentowicz and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez trying to close down his angle, Acosta put a shot through Gonzalez Pirez’s legs and past Brad Guzan in the 28th minute.
D.C. United looked tired and it really started to show in the final minutes of the second half.
When Atlanta United had the ball, it patiently passed from side to side, making D.C. United’s player expend energy moving back and forth. The fatigue was evident when Rooney, on a breakaway at midfield, simply booted the ball into the corner rather than try to take on Atlanta United’s defenders.
Atlanta United tied it in the 40th minute on a goal from Larentowicz, who outjumped Rooney to head a corner kick into the opposite corner. It was his first goal this season and the 40th of his career that, after Sunday, includes 384 appearances and 365 starts. Barco was credited with the assist. It was his second this season.
Rooney gave D.C. United a 2-1 lead with a penalty kick in the 52nd minute. Paul Arriola won the penalty after he was fouled by Barco.
“It’s hard for me to say (if it was a penalty),” Martino said. “It’s possible with the referee we had tonight that I thought it was going to be a penalty.”
After the penalty, as Atlanta United pushed for the tying goal, Martino said the team became more disorganized.
“We lost a little bit of confidence,” Martino said. “We got down on ourselves and lost control of the game.”
Martino put more offense on the field in the 63rd minute when he subbed in Kevin Kratz for Michael Parkhurst. Larentowicz dropped back to centerback.
Martinez missed a chance to tie the game when his shot went wide in the 67th minute. The chance was set up by an amazingly long run from Almiron, who seemed to be on top of Martinez as the two sprinted down the field. Martinez didn’t score for the first time in nine games, leaving him tied with Portland’s Diego Valeri for the most consecutive games with a goal.
Martino put a whole lot more offense on the field in the 77th minute when he handed 16-year-old George Bello his first appearance with the senior team, and put on Romario Williams. They came on for Hector Villalba and Barco.
It didn’t matter.
One minute later, Acosta got behind Atlanta United’s defense again to score his second goal and give D.C. United a 3-1 lead.
D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid made a diving save to keep away an Almiron free kick in the 82nd minute.
“We wanted to sort of crowd the center of the park as much as possible,” D.C. United’s Ben Olsen said. “As the ball comes wide to guys like McCann, that’s the lesser of two evils. And that’s kind of what they do to you. You have to give somewhere. You end up giving them some space and time wide to overload. And on the day we defended the box very well.”