For all of the successes that Atlanta United experienced this season, there were also a few hiccups.
The team couldn’t do anything about the construction delays of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It made the best of playing its first home games at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium. Those were issues that the team couldn’t improve no matter how well it played in becoming the first MLS expansion team since Seattle in 2009 to qualify for the playoffs.
The good news is a team’s first year is always the hardest, according to club president Darren Eales, so expectations are rosier for the second season.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium did eventually open. The team did play well in its $1.5 billion home, taking advantage of the larger field to go 5-2-2. Nor should there be schedule oddities of long stretches off followed by a logjam of eight games in 24 days near the end of the regular season.
Here are three things that didn’t go as well as they may could have:
The final 14 games. What could be wrong about the season's final stretch in which Atlanta United went 5-2-7?
There’s nothing wrong with earning 22 points from those games. What may have sent warning signs of a potential loss to Columbus in the playoffs was which teams the Five Stripes beat, or rather didn’t get a chance to beat.
In those 14 games, just three were played against teams that qualified for the playoffs. A few were played against teams that still had a shot to make the playoffs. Atlanta United posted three draws, including the final two games against playoff teams New York Red Bulls in Harrison, N.J. and against Toronto at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
No one could have predicted that 11 of the final games would come against teams that wouldn’t make the playoffs. But, during that stretch, Atlanta United ended up beating up teams that weren’t quality this season.
Add having to play eight games in 24 days, an unheard of stretch in MLS, but one that was self-inflicted because of Atlanta United’s wish to play 17 home games, and I’m not sure the players ever fully recovered from the physical and mental toll.
Those lack of chances to consistently take on the best of the best, combined with the number of games, may have affected the team’s readiness in the playoffs.
Decisions in the final game. Many questions were raised about some of the personnel decisions made by manager Gerardo Martino in the final game.
Why was Yamil Asad, a midfielder, replaced by Michael Parkhurst. If Martino wanted a fresh defender, why not take out left fullback Chris McCann, who was playing his second game after returning from an injury, and go with a three-man backline, a formation he has used in previous games?
Why sub off striker Josef Martinez, the team’s leading scorer, with a few minutes remaining when a penalty shootout seemed probable?
Why select Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, a defender, to take the second penalty kick? He had just 16 shots in 32 games. He didn’t look at all confident walking up to take the kick, and his idecisive effort was easily saved.
Why did Martino acquiesce to Miguel Almiron’s request to take the last penalty kick when there was a chance he wouldn’t get to take it? Of course, Almiron didn’t because Atlanta United’s season ended after the fourth round.
With Martinez and Asad on the bench, and Almiron going last, three of the team’s top four goal-scorers didn’t get a chance to win the game.
Martino knows more about soccer than anyone asking these questions and did a masterful job in helping to construct the roster and guiding the team to the postseason. He explained some of the decisions in the post-match press conference.
It wasn’t the first time that Martino’s substitutions, or lack of substitutions, were criticized. He was criticized by some soccer pundits in September for his reluctance to sub out some stars during the stretch of eight games in 24 days. As evidence, they pointed to the injuries sustained by Almiron, Greg Garza and McCann. No evidence was provided.
D.C. United. The team's inability to defeat D.C. United, arguably the league's worst team, may haunt the franchise until they next play each other.
The Five Stripes dropped nine points to the Capitol Hill Gang. Even three draws -- with the resulting three points -- would have been enough to push Atlanta United into second in the East with 58 points. Nine points may have put some heat on Toronto in September in the race for the Supporter’s Shield.
It wasn’t just that Atlanta United was beaten by an aggregate score of 6-2, it was how it was beaten.
Atlanta United looked better than it did all season in the first 15 minutes against D.C. United at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Alas, it couldn’t beat Bill Hamid. After that, the Five Stripes looked mostly flat for the next 245 minutes.
Much like it did in most of August and September, Atlanta United must pick up at least a point against the struggling clubs in every meeting next season.
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