Atlanta United and D.C. United played at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. on Sunday. (Atlanta United)
Photo: Derek Campbell
Photo: Derek Campbell

Atlanta United opens MLS Cup defense with a loss

For the fourth consecutive game, Atlanta United was defeated Sunday by D.C. United in its home stadium. This time, a goal from Paul Arriola and another from Luciano Acosta were enough for a 2-0 victory to start Atlanta United’s defense of its title on a sour note. It also was Atlanta United’s third consecutive season-opening defeat.

“I don’t know, honestly,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said when asked why the team has trouble winning in D.C. “They are a tough team, they are a talented team. It’s not the D.C. of old where they just bunker and play for set pieces. This is a very good D.C. team.”

Playing in a steady rain and temperatures in the 30s, Atlanta United looked a bit more like the team that was beaten by Herediano 3-1 in Costa Rica two weeks ago in its debut in the Champions League than the team that rebounded to post a 4-0 win on Thursday in the second meeting between the teams. The offense failed to find a foothold on Sunday with just one shot on goal through 80 minutes and the defense consistently allowed too much space to D.C. United’s quality midfielders with the team putting six shots on goal.

“I thought Costa Rica was a terrible performance, I thought today was a better performance,” Parkhurst said. “We had a couple of bad moments where we gave up goals. The performance overall was better. We weren’t all over the shop. We weren’t getting broken down left and right. That was OK. We did dominate in points of game, possession wise.”

Though Atlanta United played on Thursday and must play again on Wednesday at Monterrey in the quarterfinals of the tournament, manager Frank de Boer selected a strong 11, featuring mostly the regular starters. The only exceptions were Mikey Ambrose in at right wingback for Julian Gressel and Hector Villalba in for Pity Martinez in the midfield.

De Boer said that the players such as Gressel and Pity Martinez that make a lot of explosive plays -- long runs -- were held out of the starting line up.

“We have to take care of our bodies,” de Boer said.

The teams were cautious early.

D.C. United created the first chance when Brek Shea got caught watching and was beaten to the back post. The point-blank shot from Leanardo Jara was saved by Brad Guzan.

Atlanta United tried to answer a few minutes later when Guzan sent Villalba down the left. As Villalba ran into the penalty box he slipped and fell, ending the scoring opportunity.

That inability to create a decisive play in the final third was an issue for a 20-25 minute stretch in the first half,  according to de Boer.

“For that moment I had a feeling that we had everything under control,” he said. “We had more chances and more chances.”

D.C. United had another good chance in the 34th minute when Acosta lofted a pass to Arriola, whose volley flew past Guzan but also sailed wide of the opposite corner.

Wayne Rooney took a chance in the 38th minute with a shot from 20 yards that also flew inches wide.

Guzan saved Atlanta United again when Acosta connected with Jara on the end line. His cross was deflected to Junior Moreno, who hit his shot right at Guzan in the middle of the goal in the 40th minute.

Villalba cut loose a minute later with a 25-yard shot that missed Hamid’s goal by inches.

D.C. United took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Arriola in the first minute of injury time at the end of the first half. On its seventh corner of the half, Acosta beat Parkhurst to the delivery from Rooney. Acosta’s deflection was slammed into the goal by Arriola as Atlanta United’s defenders were left scrambling.

It appeared that the corner kick should have instead been a goal kick.

“For them it was a big blow,” de Boer said. “For us it was disappointing that we conceded that goal in the final second.”

De Boer said he told the team to keep doing what it was doing in that stretch in the first half when it was coming close to creating chances.

They weren’t able to do that.

D.C. United took a 2-0 lead on a 22-yard shot from Acosta that appeared to swerve at the last second, fooling Guzan in the 58th minute.

“I take that one,” Guzan said. “I won’t let it define me. It’s a long season. Hopefully, I’ve got more saves than mistakes in the bag. He hit it pure. Nine times out of 10 I would expect to save that.”

Trying to get a result, De Boer elected to immediately sub in Gressel for Ambrose and Pity Martinez for Villalba.

Playing together for the next 20 minutes, the $30 million in transfer fees that is the attacking talent of Josef Martinez, Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco didn’t put a shot on goal.

“We weren’t great with the ball,” Guzan said. “We seemed to not be able to find a way to unlock their back line. We weren’t as sharp as we can be.” 

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