It was dull, but familiar and Atlanta United earned its first home win in MLS this season with a 1-0 victory over Colorado on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Julian Gressel’s first league goal this season, on an assist from Darlington Nagbe, proved the difference against a Colorado team that seemed determined to play for a draw in front of an announced attendance of 43,005. With the win, Atlanta United improved to 1-1-2 at home and 2-3-2 overall.
After scoring, Gressel stood and stared. He said it was inspired by Portland’s Damian Lillard.
“It wasn’t the prettiest,” Gressel said. “We found a way and that’s really all that matters.”
Scoring a league-low five goals in its first six games, Atlanta United seemed to be facing the perfect opponent in Colorado, which had allowed a league-most 23 goals through eight games. That poor defense, combined with Atlanta United showing signs of life in its past 2-1/2 games, implied that the Five Stripes could be in for a breakout game.
Instead, Atlanta United had only one shot on goal in the first half because the opponent borrowed a bunkering tactic many others have tried at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Jeff Larentowicz said he thought that maybe Atlanta United was too content to go side to side, which allowed Colorado to set.
“It was extremely difficult,” Larentowicz said. “It was kind of a paradox where you have to be patient but play quickly to get through and create openings. The second half it opened up. Couple of guys came on, changed the game a little bit and we got the breakthrough.”
Part of Atlanta United’s difficulty was that when it had the ball, Colorado played five across the back with a block of four defenders just a few yards ahead. There was very little space in the middle of the pitch that Atlanta United could try to exploit.
“When teams plays like this, you have to have a fantastic day,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “They parked two buses in front of their own goal.
“That’s why this victory is very sweet. The team that deserved to win got the three points.”
The next shot on goal came in the 66th minute, again coming from Gonzalez Pirez and not from any of the team’s three Designated Players: Josef Martinez, Pity Martinez, who returned to the starting lineup, or Ezequiel Barco.
Manager Frank de Boer made a double sub in the 71st minute, with Eric Remedi coming on for Brek Shea and Hector Villalba for Pity Martinez.
As part of the switch, de Boer said he moved Nagbe out left, not as a left fullback, but to support the fullback on defense if needed while trying to take on Colorado players one-on-one on offense, with Hector Villalba staying wide left.
The tactic worked.
Atlanta United scored three minutes later when Nagbe sliced through Colorado’s defense, reached the end line and put a cross to the near post that Gressel knocked in. It was Atlanta United’s third shot on goal.
“Rewarding I would say after having good performances and the results not being there,” Nagbe said. “Today wasn’t the best performance but these games are always difficult to play in.”
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