Atlanta United gives up late goal, draws with Houston in Rob Valentino’s debut as manager

Atlanta United forward Daniel Rios #19 celebrates after a goal during the first half of the match against the Houston Dynamo FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA on Saturday June 15, 2024. (Photo by Mitch Martin/Atlanta United)

Credit: Mitch Martin/Atlanta United

Credit: Mitch Martin/Atlanta United

Atlanta United forward Daniel Rios #19 celebrates after a goal during the first half of the match against the Houston Dynamo FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA on Saturday June 15, 2024. (Photo by Mitch Martin/Atlanta United)

One match isn’t a large sample size from which to draw season-determining conclusions, but Atlanta United did a lot of things well and one thing very badly in its 2-2 draw with Houston on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

In Rob Valentino’s first match in charge as interim manager, Atlanta United (4-8-5) rallied from a 1-0 deficit on goals by Daniel Rios and Xande Silva, it played with consistent fight despite missing many starters, only to capitulate the tying goal in a very Atlanta United way in the final minutes in front of an announced attendance of 42,630.

The draw snapped the team’s five-match home losing streak, which contributed to last week’s firing of Gonzalo Pineda and the promotion of Valentino, and gave it some momentum, not as much as it could have had, heading into next week when it will play at D.C. United on Wednesday and at St. Louis on Saturday.

The biggest negative was the tying goal scored by Houston’s Latif Blessing, unmarked at the back post, in the 89th minute.

“It wasn’t in the bag, it never felt like that, that’s for sure,” Valentino said. “But these are moments that we have to stop.”

Valentino went back to Brad Guzan in goal with a back four in front of him consisting of Brooks Lennon, Noah Cobb, Derrick Williams and Caleb Wiley. The midfield was composed of Thiago Almada, Tristan Muyumba and Dax McCarty, and the front three were Rios, Silva and Edwin Mosquera. Five starters weren’t available because of international call-ups, injuries or pending sales. That group includes winger Saba Lobjanidze, midfielder Bartosz Slisz and centerbacks Luis Abram and Stian Gregersen. Giorgos Giakoumakis, the team’s leading scorer, wasn’t available because he is in the process of being sold to Cruz Azul.

It took Houston less than five minutes to expose Atlanta United’s defense.

It came, unsurprisingly, from a set piece, which can result in a lapse of concentration, something that has plagued Atlanta United this season.

Hector Herrera took a corner kick to the near post, where Griffin Dorsey hit it with his right heel off the crossbar. The rebound went to the back post, where former Atlanta United player Franco Escobar was unmarked and hit an easy header back across the goal and in to give Houston a 1-0 lead. The corner happened because of a Houston counter that was thwarted by a last-second touch by Lennon.

Williams said the corner kick was put exactly in the spot that Atlanta United’s players were told it would go, to the near post.

“Frustrating,” Williams said.

It was the sixth set-piece goal allowed by Atlanta United this season. Valentino said they had focused this week on defending set pieces. It was the third time this season that Atlanta United gave up the first goal at home. The team was 0-2-0 in those matches.

Mosquera appeared to suffer an injury around the 12th minute. He was replaced by Luke Brennan in the 18th minute. Valentino had no information about Mosquera’s possible injury after the match.

Atlanta United tied the match at 1 in the 25th minute with a goal that wasn’t pretty but at least it wasn’t an expected goal talking point. It started with Guzan punting the ball deep into Houston’s half for Rios to chase. He won the ball from Micael dos Santos and backheeled a pass to Brennan, who squared the ball to Almada, whose close-range shot was stopped by goalkeeper Steve Clark. The rebound came to Rios, who shot with his right foot. It was his second goal this season.

Valentino spoke on Thursday about trying to create more transition opportunities. Long kicks downfield from Guzan certainly qualify as a way to create situations where Atlanta United players can run at defenders.

Silva gave Atlanta United a 2-1 lead in the 55th minute when hit a right-footed curler from a very tight angle. Silva took on two defenders. He beat the first. The second tried to backheel a pass to the first. Silva intercepted that and had a clear but difficult shooting angle just yards from the end line. It was his second goal this season.

Curiously, all three goals featured a heeled pass.

Of more importance, in a possible sign of growth, Atlanta United kept that lead for the next few minutes. Giving up goals within a few minutes after scoring has also been an issue for Atlanta United this season. In the final minutes, Williams blocked a shot that was arrowing for the corner and a few minutes later Guzan saved a point-blank header.

“That was kind of like a ‘Warning! Warning!’ moment and we didn’t learn from it,” Williams said.

Atlanta United finally folded when no one marked Blessing as he made a run between defenders for an easy goal.

“I think it’s late in the game, tired legs, and it’s a combination of errors,” Valentino said. “And we can’t allow that late in the game.”

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Atlanta United’s 2024 schedule

Feb. 24 Columbus 1, Atlanta United 0

March 9 Atlanta United 4, New England 1

March 17 Atlanta United 2, Orlando 0

March 23 Toronto 2, Atlanta United 0

March 31 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 0

April 6 Atlanta United 1, NYCFC 1

April 14 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 2

April 20 Cincinnati 2, Atlanta United 1

April 27 Atlanta United 1, Chicago 1

May 4 Minnesota 2, Atlanta United 1

May 7 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte Independence 0 in U.S. Open Cup

May 11 D.C. United 3, Atlanta United 2

May 15 Cincinnati 1, Atlanta United 0

May 18 Atlanta United 1, Nashville 1

May 21 Atlanta United 0 (5), Charleston 0 (4) in U.S. Open Cup

May 25 LAFC 1, Atlanta United 0

May 29 Atlanta United 3, Miami 1

June 2 Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 2

June 15 Atlanta United 2, Houston 2

June 19 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 22 at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m.

June 29 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

July 3 at New England, 7:30 p.m.

July 6 at Real Salt Lake, 9:30 p.m.

July 9 vs. Indy Eleven in U.S. Open Cup

July 13 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 17 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

July 20 vs. Columbus, 7:30 p.m.

July 26 vs. D.C. United in Leagues Cup, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 4 vs. Santos Laguna in Leagues Cup, 4 p.m.

Aug. 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 31 at Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. Nashville, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 18 vs. Miami, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 28 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 2 vs. Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 at Orlando, 6 p.m.