By the estimation of Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino, his team has thrown away seven points this season because they have given up goals in the final minutes.
Seven points in its Adidas pockets would have Atlanta United firmly in control of the Supporters’ Shield as well as a bye in the first round of the MLS Eastern Conference playoffs.
But, dropping points in a draw at New England, a loss at Dallas in which it gave up two late goals and in its recent draw against Toronto means the Five Stripes are just one point ahead of New York Red Bulls and NYCFC in the East. Both of those chasing teams will play Saturday before Atlanta United hosts Columbus on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Sunday’s game gives Atlanta United not only a chance to at least keep pace with the Pigeons and Bulls, but to exorcise the late-game lapses in concentration that have led to this being such a close race.
And Atlanta United couldn’t pick a better opponent because no MLS team has been better than Columbus this season at scoring winning goals late. The Crew are tied for second in league history with three game-winning goals in stoppage time this season. Two were scored by Gyasi Zardes and one by Wil Trapp.
“Shows that they fight,” Atlanta United’s Jeff Larentowicz said. “They are a typical MLS team. They don’t really give up.”
Those three are a part of the eight goals the Crew have scored this season in the final 15 minutes of games. That’s the most for the team in any 15-minute segment tracked by MLS.
Going back to their first preseason meeting in Charleston, S.C. before the 2017 season, Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino and the players have expressed their respect for Columbus manager Gregg Berhalter, his team and their strategies.
“We’ve had some good battles with Columbus over the last two seasons,” Atlanta United’s Chris McCann said. “They are probably one of the better footballing teams in the league.”
Though Columbus is tied with Montreal for the fewest goals scored (31) in the Eastern Conference and second-fewest in MLS, the team has the talent with Zardes, Federico Higuain and Justin Meram, and tactics to turn a loss into a draw, or a draw into a win.
To keep them from snatching points from Atlanta United, the players said they need to improve their focus in those final minutes, and to use game-management tactics.
Martino complained after Toronto scored in the final minutes to secure a 2-2 draw that his team’s opponents frequently try to slow games by delaying throw-ins, goal-kicks, etc. He said Atlanta United prefers to play, but they may consider a more cynical approach in the final 10 games.
“When teams come to Mercedes-Benz, they know it’s going to be an electric atmosphere, it’s going to be a tough game,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “Teams try to slow the game down and slow the pace of the game down. When they are able to do that, it poses a bit of a problem.
“I think it’s important for us, especially late on in games, when we are winning games, not to delay or stall, but have a better understanding or savviness in terms of managing the game.”
On Friday, Martino said he has considered that tactic and, if the Five Stripes are winning and its late in the game, they may exercise their game-management skills.
“We’ve talked about it with the players, in those final minutes, to hold back because we’ve lost a lot of points in those final minutes,” Martino said.