Atlanta United finishes 5th in MLS East with win over Cincinnati

Will play at NYCFC in first round of playoffs
Atlanta United defender Anton Walkes #4 defends during the match against Cincinnati FC at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio on Sunday November 7, 2021. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

Atlanta United defender Anton Walkes #4 defends during the match against Cincinnati FC at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio on Sunday November 7, 2021. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

Atlanta United will play at NYCFC in the first round of the playoffs after it qualified for the postseason by fighting through a sleepy first half for a 2-1 road win against Cincinnati on Sunday.

The win, thanks to second-half goals from Miles Robinson and Josef Martinez, moved the Five Stripes from seventh place in the East to fifth. Atlanta United finishes the regular season with a 13-9-12 record, including 7-3-3 under new manager Gonzalo Pineda.

“I think this game is a testament of probably what was the season for the team,” Pineda said. “I just told the players that last time Atlanta United played in this stadium they were 13 games with 13 points. And now 21 games after we have 38 points more. So that’s pretty impressive. That’s almost two points per game. And that is a testament of the mentality of the team in the second half of the season.”

The first goal was scored by Robinson on a corner kick by Ezequiel Barco in the 70th minute. It was Robinson’s first goal with the club in his 87th appearance. It was Barco’s team-leading eighth assist.

Martinez’s winner will be remembered because he hit a right-footed spinning volley in the 79th minute into the opposite corner that showed even when he’s not at his best, which was the case until the goal, he is still one of the league’s best strikers. He said he doesn’t know where the goal came from but did recognize its importance.

To be fair, earning the victory shouldn’t have been as difficult as Atlanta United made it. The Five Stripes needed only to tie to make the postseason. With a win, Atlanta United had a chance to move into fourth and host a playoff game. Cincinnati had lost 11 consecutive games to earn the Wooden Spoon, given to the team that finishes MLS with the fewest points, for the third consecutive season.

But the win provided much-needed momentum for the the Five Stripes.

After being dominated but earning a result in its previous game against the Red Bulls, the team again started slowly against Cincinnati. But Pineda got all of his subs and formation changes correct in the second half to help the team win for just the second time on the road in franchise history in 35 instances of giving up a first goal.

“They did a great job at turning things around, just playing better football, creating a lot of chances,” Pineda said. “And then a few very, very good goals.”

Pineda chose a starting 11 that was composed of Martinez, Barco, Luiz Araujo, Matheus Rossetto, Franco Ibarra, George Bello, Ronald Hernandez, Robinson, Alan Franco, Anton Walkes and Brad Guzan. Marcelino Moreno wasn’t in the game-day roster because he was dealing with some soreness.

As has been the case for the past few seasons, Atlanta United started in something less than first gear. Cincinnati created the first quality chance in the third minute when Luciano Acosta’s 17-yard shot was pushed over the crossbar.

As Atlanta United continued to play as if there was nothing on the line, Cincinnati took a 1-0 lead on a 19-yard shot by Zico Bailey, who played a 1-2 with Acosta. As Bailey received the ball, no Atlanta United player moved to pressure him.

It was a foreboding goal because Atlanta United was 1-26-7 on the road in franchise history when the opponent scores first.

Guzan was forced to save a difficult shot in the 36th minute and then grab a cross in the 37th minute as Atlanta United still looked stuck in neutral in terms of emotion and desire. The team finished with two chances created and one shot on target in the first half compared to Cincinnati’s three.

At halftime, Guzan pulled no punches when addressing his teammates.

“That’s not good enough for the type of team that we’re trying to become in terms of a championship team and wanting to do something special in the playoffs,” he said he told them. “That effort, that mentality is not going to be going into these playoffs and so I’m extremely proud of the guys to come out and literally play the complete opposite of how we played in the first half with urgency, with intensity, with some savviness, with some smartness and be able to grind out a result.”

To try to spark the offense, Pineda subbed in Jake Mulraney for Walkes to start the second half. With that sub, the team switched to a back four with Barco moving to attacking midfielder. An attitude adjustment, an extra midfielder, and Cincinnati being less aggressive combined to spark the team.

Atlanta United began to finally start shooting with Martinez forcing Kenneth Vermeer, who was moving to his right, to stick out his left foot to make a save in the 52nd minute.

Barco put Martinez through on goal in the 63rd minute but he whiffed on the left-footed shot.

Robinson followed by hitting the post with a header in the 66th minute from an excellent free kick by Barco.

Pineda put on the speedy Jurgen Damm and the aggressive Brooks Lennon in the 68th minute in place of Hernandez and Ibarra as the team sacrificed defense for offense. Araujo became a striker with Damm and Lennon moving to the right side of the formation.

Atlanta United got its breakthrough in the 70th minute on a header by Robinson from a corner kick by Barco. Robinson was being pulled down by a defender but managed to get enough on the shot for it to loop into the corner. Robinson had put a header over the goal on a corner kick earlier in the game.

“He totally deserves it because he’s had a great year,” Martinez said. “He’s a player that’s very important for us and I’m very happy for him for all his effort.”

Martinez added the second on his amazing goal in the 79th minute to seal the victory. It was his 89th goal in regular-season games in his 108th appearance.

“He proved why, why he’s Josef Martinez and why he’s so good,” Guzan said. “I mean, those are moments that you can’t coach. You can’t teach moments of brilliance.”

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Atlanta United’s 2021 MLS schedule

April 17 Atlanta United 0, Orlando 0

April 24 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 1

May 1 New England 2, Atlanta United 1

May 9 Atlanta United 1, Inter Miami 1

May 15 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0

May 23 Atlanta United 1, Seattle 1

May 29 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

June 20 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 2

June 23 NYCFC 1, Atlanta United 0

June 27 Atlanta United 0, New York Red Bulls 0

July 3 Chicago 3, Atlanta United 0

July 8 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

July 17 New England 1, Atlanta United 0

July 21 Atlanta United 1, Cincinnati 1

July 24 Columbus 1, Atlanta United 0

July 30 Orlando 3, Atlanta United 2

Aug. 4 Atlanta United 2, Montreal 2

Aug. 7 Atlanta United 3, Columbus 2

Aug. 15 Atlanta United 1, LAFC 0

Aug. 18 Atlanta United 1, Toronto 0

Aug. 21 Atlanta United 2, D.C. United 1

Aug. 28 Nashville 2, Atlanta United 0

Sept. 10 Atlanta United 3, Orlando 0

Sept. 15 Atlanta United 4, Cincinnati 0

Sept. 18 Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 2

Sept. 25 Philadelphia 1, Atlanta United 0

Sept. 29 Atlanta United 1, Inter Miami 0

Oct. 2 Montreal 2, Atlanta United 1

Oct. 16 Atlanta United 2, Toronto 0

Oct. 20 Atlanta United 1, NYCFC 1

Oct. 27 Atlanta United 2, Miami 1

Oct. 30 Atlanta United 1, Toronto1

Nov. 3 Atlanta United 0, New York Red Bulls 0

Nov. 7 Atlanta United 2, Cincinnati 1