Atlanta United’s time in the MLS tournament is done after Tuesday’s meek 1-0 loss to Columbus in a must-win game in Orlando.
This wasn’t played in heat of the morning, which was part of the reasons given by manager Frank de Boer for the 1-0 loss to Cincinnati.
This wasn’t Atlanta United’s first game in the tournament, which was part of the reasons given for the disjointedness in the 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls.
This was a game that Atlanta United (2-3-0) had to not only secure three points from but show that it could once again be the team that played a confident style that used to be the envy of others in the league.
Instead, the team looked lethargic. It looked, at times, like it wasn’t sure what it was doing as well as what Columbus was doing.
“If you were going to leave, you want to leave with three points,” de Boer said. “Everyone is disappointed in the result.”
It was a surprisingly poor performance but not an unexpected result considering the recent trajectories of the two teams. Columbus destroyed its first two opponents by a combined six-goal margin. Atlanta United was the only team of 24 who had yet to score in the tournament and that dubious distinction was cemented with every mishit shot or over-hit cross on Tuesday.
The defeat was the team’s third consecutive in the league and fourth across all competitions, extending its own record, and it hasn’t scored in 395 minutes, also a team record.
“Three games, six halves of football and we showed up for the last half,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “The second half was better but not nearly good enough or what Atlanta United stands for and the club we know this club to be. It’s not even close to being good enough.”
De Boer selected for the starting 11 most of the players who were in for the game against the New York Red Bulls. The two exceptions were Adam Jahn in striker in place of Manuel Castro and Ezequiel Barco as an attacking winger in place of Matheus Rossetto. The remaining nine: Guzan, centerbacks Franco Escobar, Miles Robinson and Fernando Meza, wingbacks Brooks Lennon and George Bello, central midfielders Emerson Hyndman and Mo Adams, and attacking midfielder Pity Martinez.
De Boer did add a wrinkle to the 3-4-3 formation with Jahn and Martinez playing together as strikers with Barco playing underneath them.
Columbus manager Caleb Porter, having already clinched advancement to the knockout round, rested midfielder Lucas Zelarayan, but did start striker Gyasi Zardes and former Atlanta United midfielder Darlington Nagbe. In all, Porter made seven changes to the starting lineup from the 2-0 win against Red Bulls in the previous game.
Atlanta United almost fell behind 1-0 in the ninth minute when Martinez turned over the ball. It took just one pass across the field to find an open Luis Diaz, whose shot went wide. The gaping hole in the defense was similar to the one for the deciding goal scored by the Red Bulls.
Atlanta United’s lack of urgency on offense and defense was punished in the 18th minute when no one picked up Youness Moukhtar’s late run into the center of the penalty box. He took a pass from Milton Valenzuela, stationed on the left, and scored to put Atlanta United into a 1-0 hole.
De Boer said Atlanta United was trying to press Columbus but couldn’t. He said the Crew played against the press differently than they have in previous games. Of more importance, de Boer said the team wasn’t capable of making an adjustment to the Crew’s tactics until halftime.
De Boer and the players have said they spent part of their time during team training in Marietta working on situations. They also spent time between the loss to Cincinnati and Tuesday’s game working on situations.
“We have to have an answer if it happens the next time,” de Boer said. “It’s a lesson for me and a lesson for our players.”
Atlanta United’s first shot on goal didn’t come until the 29th minute when Barco’s free kick from 25 yards was saved.
De Boer then rolled the dice to start the second half. He subbed in Eric Remedi for Meza, who sustained an injury late in the first half, and Jon Gallagher, making his MLS debut, came on for Jahn, but moved to centerback. The changes were made because de Boer wanted to try to press the Crew more.
The moves were odd, particularly because Gallagher had never before played centerback as a professional in a game, and didn’t provide enough of a spark.
Atlanta United did put a few shots on goal, but Guzan said the bar was set so low in the team’s previous performances it’s tough to describe the play as an improvement.
“It’s not like we were unbelievable and the Atlanta United of old,” he said.
Atlanta United’s best chance, much like Jahn’s last-second header against the Red Bulls, came in the final seconds when a volley from Anton Walkes was palmed by Andrew Tarbell down the line, rolling along the chalk but not going in.
Now, Atlanta United must wait for MLS to release the rest of the schedule. The tournament’s championship game is scheduled for Aug. 11, so it’s unlikely there will be games outside of the tournament being played before then.
“I think we need to go back to drawing board, go back to Atlanta, go back to the training pitch, work on things that didn’t go well,” Lennon said. “Some real conversations need to be made.
“The Atlanta United standard is so high and we need to keep it there for the fans, for the club and for ourselves. It’s not good enough what we’ve produced in these three games.”
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