More controversial officiating combined with some poor defending resulted in Atlanta United falling to New York Red Bulls 3-1 on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
In a battle of early MLS MVP candidates, New York’s Bradley Wright-Phillips scored two goals, and played a role in another, to Miguel Almiron’s none to hand the Five Stripes their second consecutive loss at home in front of 45,089. Ezequiel Barco scored Atlanta United’s goal. It was his third in four games.
Atlanta United (8-3-1) remains in first in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of NYCFC and Columbus. Atlanta United is off next week and will return at New England on May 30. It will do so without Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who received his fifth yellow card of the season and will serve a mandatory one-game suspension, and Greg Garza, who received a red card following a high tackle in the 71st minute.
The talking points may be the role that each of Atlanta United’s three centerbacks had in New York’s first three goals, or that it again failed to put away scoring chances early, or that another pressing team befuddled Atlanta United.
One thing that Atlanta United’s supporters will definitely be talking about is Mark Geiger, a referee who played a part in the outcome of the second consecutive Atlanta United game.
“I don’t want to take away credit from Red Bulls, so I don’t want to justify it with VAR, because Red Bulls is a very good team and the same thing for Kansas City, but the reality is that both games had the same protagonist, and when I say the same, I’m not talking about the referee,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said. “I’m talking about the same person. In one game he refereed and in the other he reviewed. And they were decisive in the outcome of the game.”
As the referee during the game against Sporting KC, Geiger took away a Josef Martinez goal that would have given Atlanta United a 1-0 lead.
Geiger was the VAR official with Chris Penso on the field for Sunday’s game. After Josef Martinez appeared to give Atlanta United a 2-0 lead in the 32nd minute, Geiger notified Penso that he should review if Martinez fouled Tim Parker as part of the play. After originally ruling it a goal, Penso reviewed the score and disallowed the goal.
“The Josef goal? What did he say. It’s stupid,” Atlanta United’s Leandro Gonzalez Pirez said. “It’s stupid. Because Parker runs to one side and Josef runs to the other side? He says foul. This is a foul? This is real? This is stupid. The referee every week, every single week, the same.”
Geiger then seemed to decline to ask Penso to review a play that he ruled as a penalty kick for the Red Bulls 10 minutes later. If Geiger did, Penso didn’t hold his hand to his ear, which is a signal that the VAR official is talking to him. New York scored to the game at one. The play that resulted in the penalty appeared to be incidental contact between Miles Robinson and Bradley Wright-Phillips. Daniel Royer converted the penalty to tie the game at one.
» Photos: Atlanta’s second straight loss at home
Atlanta United went with the same 3-5-2 it has used to go unbeaten in nine games. The only change in personnel within the formation was the return of goalkeeper Brad Guzan from a one-game suspension as a result of a red card against Sporting KC. Robinson was given his second consecutive start and third this season at centerback.
The Red Bulls were without their goalkeeper Luis Robles, whose streak of 183 consecutive starts was snapped because of a knee injury. Ryan Meara, with one career start, got the nod.
As if not having Robles was distracting enough, the Red Bulls were also dealing with midfielder Tyler Adams, one of the best young players in the U.S. national team pool, and manager Jesse Marsch are in line to move to Red Bull Leipzig in Germany.
The opening 20 minutes were end-to-end action. Shortly after the Red Bulls missed with a header just wide of Guzan’s goal, Atlanta United came down and Almiron’s shot from 8 yards was palmed away by Meara, who had looked shaky before that excellent save.
Martinez was next to try Meara and he again kept Atlanta United off the scoreboard with another diving stop in the 25th minute.
Those early misses, a problem for Atlanta United throughout the season, proved pivotal.
Atlanta United broke through with Barco in the 26th minute. He started the play by passing to Almiron, whose shot bounced off a defender. Barco continued his run and the deflection came right to him, behind the Red Bulls’ defense. He looked up and beat Meara to the near post. It was Barco’s third goal in four games.
After Martinez’s goal was disallowed, the Red Bulls tied the game at 1 in the 42st minute on Royer’s controversial penalty kick.
“I said you had a clear view of it the first time and you didn’t call it, so it couldn’t have been too clear,” Parkhurst said of Penso. “He said he second-guessed himself and didn’t call it. He Said it was clear on the replay.”
Things didn’t calm down much early in the second half. Penso gave Jeff Larentowicz a straight red card following a tough tackle. After reviewing the play, Penso overruled himself and instead gave Larentowicz a yellow card, allowing Atlanta United to play with 11 men.
“That’s down to the guy that’s upstairs, the referee that’s in his ear,” Guzan said. “I don’t know. A lot of question marks after today’s game. I said to the referee afterward, to send someone off and then to pull him back onto the field, we’ve had that twice now happen to us. I think that’s a bit ridiculous.
“Not only sending a message to 10 other guys on the field but sending a message to 50,000 fans here’s a red card and two seconds later call him back onto the field. I don’t think that’s right.”
The Red Bulls grabbed a 2-1 lead in the 51st minute on a header from Wright-Phillips, which bounced under Guzan’s right arm and into the opposite corner.
Wright-Phillips added a second, again with his head, in the 55th minute to give the Red Bulls a 3-1 lead. He beat Michael Parkhurst on his first goal and Gonzalez Pirez for his second.
The game stopped around the 72nd minute when Red Bulls defender Kemar Lawrence slid to hit a ball, and stayed down. He may have hit his head on the turf. Lawrence didn’t move for several minutes and was eventually put into a neck brace and carted off.
“Sometimes, since I don’t understand the language well, I don’t know how they’re using it,” Martino said of VAR. “But definitively what I think is someone has to review it and they’re reviewing it wrong. But the idea of VAR should be another. I’m not completely in disagreement with VAR.
“But how it is that a referee misses a call in the play, when he’s right there, how is he going to need VAR to be told from above it’s a direct red card? Impossible. Today it’s the same. Today the referee took out a direct red card, and in reality it was a foul on the other team. So between reviewing everything, and the person reviewing is getting things wrong. I got 10 messages from Argentina asking me ‘who reviews VAR?’
“Because it’s hard to believe that someone can call that penalty, and someone reviews it and still sees a penalty. I invite any of you to watch the play. There was nothing. Nothing. But that’s how things are. And again the worry is for you all because the person reviewing VAR is going to the World Cup. It’s going to speak poorly of you all, not me.”