Atlanta United has chance to salvage its MLS season

Atlanta United was beaten by Columbus 1-0 on Tuesday in the MLS tournament in Orlando.
Atlanta United was beaten by Columbus 1-0 on Tuesday in the MLS tournament in Orlando.

Credit: MLS

Credit: MLS

This hasn’t been the season anyone expected from Atlanta United.

Instead of challenging for the Supporters' Shield, the team has instead not yet qualified for the MLS playoffs. It lost its best player in the season’s first game. It lost its big-name coach after an inept showing at the MLS tournament in Orlando. It sold arguably its best player.

Still ... hope is powerful, and despite everything that has happened, the team still has that. If it can win its finale at Columbus on Sunday, and one other result goes its way, it will make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season and have an opportunity to win the MLS Cup for the second time in three seasons.

“Qualifying for the playoffs will make something of this season that unfortunately hasn’t been the best season for us,” defender Brooks Lennon said. “It would be really important for club to get into the playoffs.”

Though he didn’t know how as of Friday, interim manager Stephen Glass said the team will try to stay informed about the other results from Sunday that could affect his team’s playoff chances: Montreal at D.C. United, Chicago vs. NYCFC and Inter Miami vs. Cincinnati.

If Montreal and Chicago win, Atlanta United’s league season is finished even if it wins because those two teams will clinch the final two spots among the 10 that will make the playoffs.

If only one of those two win, and Atlanta United wins, the Five Stripes are in with a chance for redemption.

“We haven’t achieved the things we wanted to this season,” centerback Fernando Meza said. “After the pandemic, we haven’t been able to have the form we want. A thousand things that have affected everyone. No excuses. We have something pending. If we win and things go our way, there is still a lot to play for this season.”

Atlanta United can qualify with a draw against Columbus, but that scenario is complex because three results would have to happen, with no either/or scenario: Chicago would have to lose, Miami would have to lose or draw, and D.C. United would have to lose or draw. Glass said that is something he would have to manage within the game because there would be a risk in the team trying to score and perhaps opening itself to a counterattack and Columbus goal that could result in losing the season, such as it has been.

“The only thing we can control this weekend is we go and do everything we can to win the game and see what it gets us,” Glass said.

Glass said the players have been in good spirits this week and seem ready for the challenge. But showing it in training and showing it in games are different things, and the team hasn’t shown any consistency in turning a good week of practice into a good performance in a game. It has had two different winless streaks of six games. It has yet to win when conceding the first goal, going 0-12-2.

Asked if there were any performances that he looks back on with regret, Glass asked how much time the questioner had. He then, in quick order, noted the late loss at Toronto, the loss at D.C. United, and refereeing decisions that have gone against the team, to name a few things.

It hasn’t been the season anyone expected.

But that can change Sunday.

“How much do you want to win a game of football?” Glass asked of the players. “I think we will see that on Sunday. There’s an opportunity for the players to put themselves into the postseason. If we don’t make the playoffs, we go down with three points and rue what we did earlier in the season.

Atlanta United coming games

Sunday at Columbus (11-6-5), 3:30 p.m., FSSE

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