Atlanta United draws Columbus; can’t finish top four

Atlanta United defender Brooks Lennon #11 during the first half of the match against Columbus Crew at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA on Saturday October 7, 2023. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta United)

Credit: Brandon Magnus/Atlanta United

Credit: Brandon Magnus/Atlanta United

Atlanta United defender Brooks Lennon #11 during the first half of the match against Columbus Crew at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA on Saturday October 7, 2023. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta United)

This isn’t the way Atlanta United wanted to approach the MLS playoffs.

Knowing they needed a victory to keep alive their hopes of achieving their preseason goal of finishing among the top four in the Eastern Conference, Atlanta United instead played poorly for the first 65 minutes, but a Miles Robinson goal in stoppage time saved a 1-1 draw with Columbus on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in front of an announced attendance of 42,684.

Two games ago, Atlanta United knew that if it won its final three matches, it would finish at least fourth and have home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. It lost its first game at Philadelphia 3-2. The draw with the Crew guaranteed that Atlanta United can finish no higher than fifth and will be on the road for the first game in a best-of-three first-round series. The team will finish the regular season at Cincinnati in two weeks. It needs to defeat the Supporters’ Shield winners and hope that New England loses its last two matches for the Five Stripes to finish as high as fifth.

Atlanta United’s one goal came on a header by Robinson with a few seconds remaining. Thiago Almada was credited with the assist, moving him past Miguel Almiron and into second on the franchise all-time assist list.

“We couldn’t,” manager Gonzalo Pineda said. “And I think we tried, we certainly tried. We certainly fought for that, but Columbus, it think was better than us in many ways. And I felt that tactically, we could have done a bit better, both on and off the ball.

“But what I take from today’s performance and, and kind of summarize the system is kind of the fight that the team was always present, always many, many games were fighting till the end. Sometimes we were not playing probably at our best, we’re fighting till the end.”

Pineda selected the same starting lineup for the third consecutive match. Giorgos Giakoumakis started at striker, with Almada as attacking midfielder and Xande Silva and Saba Lobjanidze on the wings, Matheus Rossetto and Tristan Muyumba in central midfield, Brooks Lennon and Caleb Wiley as fullbacks, Robinson and Luis Abram as centerbacks, and Brad Guzan in goal. It was the second time this season that Pineda selected the same 11 for three consecutive matches.

Atlanta United was under pressure from the opening kick. The Crew took eight shots, putting only one goal because Atlanta United defenders were throwing themselves at the ball, through the first 30 minutes. Lennon had two key stops. The Five Stripes’ attack was meek, taking only two shots, putting neither on goal. Atlanta United had great difficulty playing through Columbus’ press. When the Crew won the ball, they were very patient and methodical in attack, preferring to keep the ball by making the safe pass rather than to force something.

Columbus finished the half with 11 shots to Atlanta United’s three.

Pineda said Columbus made a switch tactically, using its left fullback to cut inside and create overloads in the middle. As a result, Almada and Muyumba were forced to defend man-to-man, leaving Rossetto with no one to mark. If he stepped up to help, it left space for Columbus to try to exploit.

“They probably played the better soccer tonight,” Wiley said. “And so ... it was frustrating because they had probably more of the ball more, they created more chances. And so obviously, as a backline, you’re constantly getting attacked on, and it’s just not fun. But there’s times when we had our chances, and we kept our cool. I think just keeping the possession and moving it around was important.”

Atlanta United made halftime adjustments that evened the match.

Almada put Atlanta United’s first shot on goal in the 50th minute. It was going to go wide until was deflected by a Columbus defender toward the goal.

Guzan was forced into two more saves, one in the 54th minute with his feet, and another in the 55th minute with a routine catch, as Columbus increased its pressure.

The Crew broke through in the 65th minute on a goal by Cucho Hernandez. Aiden Morris found space behind the midfield and in front of Atlanta United’s centerbacks. He was found by Julian Gressel. Rossetto came over to close down Morris. As Rossetto attempted to make a tackle, the ball appeared to bounce off his foot and to Hernandez, who one-timed his shot.

“t’s almost like a playoff game before the playoffs,” Lennon said. “And that’s kind of what tonight felt. I thought they played really well. I’ve got to give them credit. They controlled the ball very well. And not every game is gonna be beautiful. You’ve got to defend really well, and I thought we did that. I thought the goal that we conceded was a little unlucky. You know, kind of just bounced straight to their striker. But other than that, yeah, I thought we defended really well.”

With the draw, Atlanta United is 10-3-4 at home. Columbus outshot Atlanta United (22-10), put more shots on goal (6-4) and finished with a higher expected goals total (2.1-1.1).

“We are humbled to know that at times, we cannot be the best team in the league,” Pineda said. “And we try certainly to be and to play as the best. But today wasn’t the case. Columbus, they have a very good team, a very good coach ... and we got one point, that’s very valuable to me.”

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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule

Feb. 25 Atlanta United 2, San Jose Earthquakes 1

March 4 Atlanta United 1, Toronto FC 1

March 11 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte FC 0

March 18 Atlanta United 5, Portland 1

March 25 Columbus 6, Atlanta United 1

April 1 Atlanta United 1, New York Red Bulls 0

April 8 Atlanta United 1, New York City FC 1

April 15 Atlanta United 2, Toronto FC 2

April 23 Atlanta United 2, Chicago 1

April 29 Nashville SC 3, Atlanta United 1

May 6 Inter Miami CF 2, Atlanta United 1

May 13 Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 1

May 17 Atlanta United 4, Colorado 0

May 20 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 3

May 27 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1

May 31 Atlanta United 3, New England 3

June 7 Atlanta United 0, LAFC 0

June 10 Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 1

June 21 Atlanta United 2, New York City 2

June 24 New York Red Bulls 4, Atlanta United 0

July 2 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 0

July 8 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0

July 12 New England 2, Atlanta United 1

July 15 Orlando City 2, Atlanta United 1

July 25 Miami 4, Atlanta United 0 in Leagues Cup

July 29 Cruz Azul 1 (5), Atlanta United (4) 1 in Leagues Cup

Aug. 20 Atlanta United 2, Seattle 0

Aug. 26 Atlanta United 4, Nashville 0

Aug. 30 Cincinnati 2, Atlanta United 1

Sept. 2 Atlanta United 2, FC Dallas 2

Sept. 16 Atlanta United 5, Inter Miami 2

Sept. 20 Atlanta United 1, D.C. United 1

Sept. 23 Atlanta United 4, Montreal 1

Oct. 4 Philadelphia 3, Atlanta United 2

Oct. 7 vs. Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 21 at FC Cincinnati, 6 p.m.