Two of Atlanta United’s most-experienced players said the team needs to better handle adversity in games if they want to remain contenders for the MLS Cup.
Their thoughts were expressed after Atlanta United was beaten by New York Red Bulls 3-1 on Sunday in a game that featured several controversial calls made using the Video Assistant Referee and replay system. Two of the calls -- a goal disallowed and a penalty kick given against -- went against them and admittedly affected their focus, according to centerback Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. Captain Michael Parkhurst , 34, was one of several players that said the team needs to respond better.
“The rules aren’t changing, that’s for sure,” Atlanta United midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, 34, said. “I don’t foresee an MLS release that says VAR has been eliminated. It’s something we are just going to have to get used to. I think we have been. It seems like in games it has been such momentous decisions that really shift the way the game goes. That’s something that never in your life of soccer have you had to prepare for. Now it’s something we have to become better at.”
The team remains atop the MLS Eastern Conference with 25 points, but is off this weekend, so it can be passed atop the table by NYCFC and Columbus Crew if they win their games at Houston and Sporting KC, respectively.
After the Memorial Day weekend, Atlanta United is going to get several chances to display its maturity in the next two weeks. It will play at sixth-place New England on Wednesday and host seventh-place Philadelphia on Saturday, the first two in a stretch of five games in two weeks.
Atlanta United can’t carry worries about the officiating into the tough stretch, which includes a U.S. Open Cup match against a tough Charleston team on June 6, a game at NYCFC and then another at Columbus.
While the team may need to better adjust to the officiating, they are getting used to playing hot teams, which is good way to describe Columbus and NYCFC.
“It seems like we are getting every team at an interesting point in their season,” Larentowicz said. “Sporting (KC) comes in in first place. Red Bulls have been climbing the table. Orlando won six or seven straight. Zlatan (Ibrahimovic) had just gotten to LA. I think mentally it’s been difficult because the games have been so big. Mentally, it’s been a difficult one, but it’s something you deal with and get better at as you get older.”
Larentowicz wasn’t in the locker room when media were allowed in after the loss to the Red Bulls, so he wasn’t asked at the time his thoughts on VAR and the replay system. He shared them Wednesday before the team’s training when asked how it’s affecting the team’s approach during games.
“You kind of hold your breath,” he said. “There are players that play in the game and the people that are involved in the game with clubs on either side and then there’s the fan experience. I think it’s kind of changing the way that you respond to goals.
“On the field, you obviously have to be a little bit more patient. There are times that you are looking over your shoulder. That eliminates some of the excitement.”
Referencing the goal scored by Josef Martinez that was disallowed, and the penalty against Miles Robinson that led to a successful PK by Daniel Royer, Larentowicz said: “You go form a game where you are potentially up 2-0, and then it’s tied not long afterward. That’s a big shift. That’s a mental thing you have to deal with. You kind of hold your breath until the ball taps off from the middle and you know it counts.”
Not all of the calls assisted by VAR have gone against Atlanta United this season. Larentowicz benefited against the Red Bulls by having a red card changed to a yellow. The same red-to-yellow change happened to Chris McCann earlier this season. That was the first time that happened since the system was adopted in August last season.
“There’s a huge gray area in a system that was supposed to eliminate gray area and supposed to eliminate controversy,” Larentowicz said. “I think it’s kind of brought on more controversy. We’ve been on the positive side of some VAR decision. Now we’re tasting the negative side.”