In its biggest game of the season, Atlanta United did what it seems a lot of teams from Georgia do.
Needing a win or loss by New York Red Bulls to Orlando to secure the Supporters’ Shield as its first trophy since beginning play in 2017, Atlanta United gave up two easy goals in the first half and were beaten by Toronto 4-1 on Sunday at BMO Field.
In New Jersey, the Red Bulls defeated Orlando 1-0 to win the Shield for the MLS’s best record and the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta United finished the regular season with 69 points to Red Bulls’ 71.
That was that, leaving Atlanta United with a feeling of big-game disappointment also known at times by the Falcons, Hawks, Braves and Georgia.
“We did all this work starting Jan. 15 and we should have had a different performance today,” manager Gerardo Martino said. “In a sense, we betrayed ourselves and threw away everything that we worked for this season.”
Atlanta United’s season isn’t done. It still has a chance for a trophy. As the second seed, it will take the next step toward the MLS Cup when it when it plays a to-be-determined opponent in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The first game will be on the road on Nov. 4. The second will be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Nov. 11.
“Shocking,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “We never got started.”
Martino, who earlier in the week announced that he will leave the club at the end of the season, went a bit defensive with the starting 11 on Sunday, using Jeff Larentowicz and Eric Remedi as defensive midfielders. Larentowicz didn’t start last week. Still without injured star Miguel Almiron, Martino went with a five-man midfield that also included Ezequiel Barco, Julian Gressel and Darlington Nagbe. Josef Martinez was the lone striker.
Long eliminated from the playoffs, Toronto fielded a strong 11 that included striker Sebastian Giovinco.
Atlanta United got off to a nightmare start and it was created by its most experienced player. Larentowicz, with almost 400 MLS appearances, tried to play a pass across the penalty box. The pass was intercepted by Lucas Janson, who hit a right-footed shot into the opposite corner to give Toronto a 1-0 lead in the ninth minute.
“We didn’t make enough plays on either side of the ball tonight,” captain Michael Parkhurst said. “We talked about coming out here and playing a tough, being strong, keeping a zero, and giving up a goal in the first 10 minutes is tough.”
Things looked more bleak five minutes later when Red Bulls had a penalty kick against Orlando. However, the kick was saved, giving Atlanta United an early lifeline.
It didn’t matter.
Toronto grabbed a 2-0 lead on a goal by Marco Delgado, who scored from almost the same spot as Janson. This time, most of Atlanta United’s defenders, including left fullback Chris McCann, were sucked into the middle of the pitch by Jonathan Osorio. He played a pass out to his right to a wide open Delgado.
Still, because of tie-breakers, as long as Orlando and Red Bulls remained tied, Atlanta United needed only to pull a goal back to take the Shield.
“The Supporters’ Shield was a big goal of ours,” Parkhurst said. “We haven’t been quiet about that. We put ourselves in a good position to do that. We just didn’t show up today in the biggest game.”
Atlanta United had a chance to pull that crucial goal back and needed only for its best player to do what he had already done 30 times previously this season.
Even that didn’t work when Martinez jumped on a mistake by Nick Hagglund. But, one-on-one with goalkeeper Alex Bono, Martinez hit the outside of the left post with his shot.
“It seems that the team has lost the football it had up until this point,” Martino said.
It seemed that everything that had gone right for Atlanta United in the season’s first five months, went wrong on Sunday.
Things went from bad to worse for Atlanta United around 5:55 p.m. when Derrick Etienne gave the Red Bulls a 1-0 lead in the 53rd minute. That goal meant that Atlanta United needed to defeat Toronto to take the Shield.
Martinez had another solid chance in the 60th minute, but Bono came off his line to smother his shot.
Atlanta United appeared to score in the 63rd minute when Julian Gressel turned in a shot by Martinez. But one of Atlanta United’s players was flagged for offside, pulling the goal back and leaving Atlanta United trailing 2-0. It wasn’t clear which player was offside. Martino said he thinks it was on Martinez.
Orlando experienced the same thing in the 64th minute when Dom Dwyer’s tying goal was pulled back because he was ruled offside.
Gressel tried again in the 70th minute, hitting the crossbar with a right-footed shot from about 12 yards out.
Martino used his final sub a few second later, inserting Romario Williams for Barco.
Atlanta United got the goal it needed when Martinez converted a penalty kick for his 31st goals in the 77th minute. Nagbe was tripped in the box to earn the penalty.
So, Atlanta United needed to score two more, or it needed Orlando City to score one to draw even with Red Bulls.
Again, it didn’t matter.
Toronto took a 3-1 lead in the 83rd minute when Jason notched his second of the game. Again, Atlanta United need to score one goal and hope that Orlando could score to pull even with Red Bulls.
Giovinco scored Toronto’s fourth in the 89th minute.
Atlanta United will have to wait for its first trophy.
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