They were outhustled, outran and outhought. Now, Atlanta United must regroup after Saturday’s 3-1 home loss to Columbus and win its next five or it will likely be out of chances to secure the top seed in the MLS Eastern Conference playoffs.
The team started Saturday knowing that if it won its final six, it would secure the top spot, a bye in the first round of the playoffs and homefield advantage at least through the Eastern bracket. Columbus, 11th of 12 teams in the East, and Cincinnati, the 12th by a depressing margin, seemed like the perfect opponents to start building that streak.
Instead, the Crew scored three and goalkeeper Brad Guzan said could have had much more while Atlanta United was the fortunate recipient of an own-goal that was instead credited to Josef Martinez to get its one on a night where their shots were scuffed with one even hit backward.
“We should’ve taken care of business today at home,” wingback Julian Gressel said. “We didn’t, and now, it’s a very long uphill battle where we’ll need some help, but we still have five games. Got to pick our points.”
To finish in first, Atlanta United must now try to win its remaining five, which would result in it finishing with 63 points. It would then need NYCFC, which is in first with 57 points, to lose at least two of its remaining four games. It also needs Philadelphia, which is in second with 52 points to lose at least one of its remaining four games.
Atlanta United is fortunate because it will play at NYCFC on Sept. 25, and Philadelphia will host NYCFC on Decision Day, Oct. 6.
While Atlanta United can’t determine its future, it can affect it.
“We had everything in our own end, and now we don’t,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “I think still if we can win now there is a good possibility, but still, it depends on the others, of course. I think that the players, including myself, we don’t look at those results. We have to focus on ourselves.”
Part of that focus will be to find an improved balance between offense and defense. In a problem reminiscent of its troubles earlier this season, the team has lacked that cohesion in its past two games.
De Boer said against Columbus the players lacked patience with the ball. Instead of letting plays develop, there was too much eagerness to try to complete a pass that had a 1-in-20 chance of success. The resulting turnover would catch Atlanta United with too many players too far forward and unable to get back to defend.
Centerback Miles Robinson was able to stop the Crew a few times when Atlanta United’s defenders were outnumbered. Eventually, the percentages caught up and the result was the Crew’s first two goals.
“There was a lot of space to cover in behind and they knew how to take advantage of that strength of theirs, with fast players, and it’s a shame because it was an important game for us to keep fighting at the top of the table and playing at home, so it’s a shame,” centerback Franco Escobar said.
De Boer said he will talk to the team and share his story on Sunday.
“I will be positive because you can’t be negative,” he said. “Of course, we will look each other in the faces and see what went wrong. We also have to be positive. We know we can be better. Tomorrow, we have a meeting and then continue to Cincinnati, because I know for sure we will see a different team.”
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