Atlanta United loses important match to Philadelphia

Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada #10 dribbles the ball during the match against Philadelphia Union at Subaru Park in Philadelphia, PA on Wednesday October 4, 2023. (Photo by Mitch Martin/Atlanta United)

Credit: Mitch Martin/Atlanta United

Credit: Mitch Martin/Atlanta United

Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada #10 dribbles the ball during the match against Philadelphia Union at Subaru Park in Philadelphia, PA on Wednesday October 4, 2023. (Photo by Mitch Martin/Atlanta United)

CHESTER, Pa. -- Atlanta United had a chance on Wednesday at Philadelphia to prove that it was not only a threat to win the East but also to win its second MLS Cup.

Instead, the Five Stripes again failed to win a game of significance, something they haven’t done since the 2019 playoffs.

The Union (15-8-9) scored three goals in nine minutes in the first half before going on to win 3-2 at Subaru Park. According to Atlanta United manager Gonzalo Pineda, the game was marred by referee Alex Chilowicz, whom he said missed three penalty calls.

The loss was just Atlanta United’s (13-9-10) second in its past eight matches but the defeat may have cost it a chance to accomplish its goal of finishing among the top four teams in the Eastern Conference and earning home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Atlanta United was in control of its fate. Win its last three and it would finish in the top four. Now, Atlanta United has two matches left to try to get the necessary points and it needs other results to go its way. It will host Columbus, one of the teams it is chasing, on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The defeat, and how it happened with a blitz of allowed goals, brought to mind many past games when the team failed to prove that it is once again a team to be feared in MLS in the playoffs, U.S. Open Cup and Leagues Cup.

Atlanta United did fight back with goals from Thiago Almada and Edwin Mosquera in the second half. But the team fell to 3-6-7 on the road. It has lost four consecutive matches at Subaru Park. This time it was beaten by a Philadelphia team that was admittedly tired after playing on Saturday while Atlanta United was off.

Pineda only wanted to talk about the refereeing after the match, pointing to two penalty kicks that weren’t called and asking what his team needs to do to earn the respect of the officials.

“What else do we need to do rather than trying to play good football, dominating the game, trying to create a lot of chances?” he said. “What else do we need to do to earn the respect, because to me, it feels like tonight we were punished.”

Pineda selected the same starting 11 that took apart Montreal 4-1 in its previous game. Three Designated Players, striker Giorgos Giakoumakis, attacking midfielder Almada and winger Saba Lobjanidze, were in the lineup along with winger Xande Silva, midfielders Matheus Rossetto and Tristan Muyumba, fullbacks Brooks Lennon and Caleb Wiley, centerbacks Miles Robinson and Luis Abram, and goalkeeper Brad Guzan.

Atlanta United pleaded with Chilowicz for a handball call in the Philadelphia 18-yard box in the 15th minute when a cross by Lennon hit Nathan Harriel’s outstretched arm. A review of the non-call wasn’t recommended.

Asked by a reporter after the match why a penalty wasn’t called, Chilowicz said he felt that Harriel’s arm was in a natural position when it was struck by the ball.

That was the first handball that Pineda said wasn’t called.

Muyumba tested Philadelphia’s Andre Blake in the 36th minute with a hard shot from 12 yards but was hit almost directly at him.

Philadelphia took a 1-0 lead on a bicycle kick goal from Daniel Gazdag in the 39th minute. A deflected shot set up perfectly for Gazdag, who was six yards from the goal. Chilowicz appeared to be talking to Lennon and Almada when the Union’s Jack McGlynn quickly took a free kick that started the scoring sequence.

Muyumba said Atlanta United wasn’t rattled by the non-handball call but said the team should have played smarter in the final minutes.

Philadelphia doubled its lead to 2-0 in the 42nd minute on a goal by Mikael Uhre, who was given too much space at the top of the 18-yard box. He took a touch to his right, spun and hit a right-footed shot into the lower left corner.

Philadelphia increased its lead to 3-0 on a goal in which it carved up Atlanta United’s defense with timely passing until Julian Carranza finished the sequence in the third minute of stoppage time in the first half. First, he headed a pass to Gazdag, who took one touch to control the ball before squaring it back for the one-timed shot.

Asked about the six minute stretch, Pineda said, “I addressed that already with my players. Today, three penalties should have been called and only one was called. And that made the difference because the first one was right before their goals. And we were dominating the game and we were on top of them. So today, that was the most important part. The other one I already took care of with my players.”

The Union took 14 shots in the first half, putting four on goal. Atlanta United took just three shots, putting two on goal.

Atlanta United cut Philadelphia’s lead to 3-1 on a penalty kick by Almada in the 56th minute after Carranza was called for a handball in the 51st minute. It was Almada’s 11th goal.

While that was called, after a review by Chilowicz, Pineda said there was another handball a few minutes earlier in the box that should have been called. It wasn’t.

“Three penalties should have been called based on the standard of the league and how they call our handballs,” Pineda said. “Should have been three PKs tonight and we should should have won 4-3.”

Pineda brought on Ajani Fortune and Mosquera for Rossetto and Silva in the 66th minute. Jamal Thiare and Derrick Etienne came on for Giakoumakis and Lobjanidze in the 73rd minute.

Mosquera scored from close range to cut Atlanta United’s lead to 3-2 in the 76th minute. It was his third goal.

Thiare put a header just over the crossbar in the 84th minute from a cross by Lennon.

Almada played Lennon in behind the Union’s defense in the 87th minute but his first touch failed to control the ball before it was taken by Blake.

Atlanta United pressured Philadelphia in the final seven minutes but couldn’t find the tying goal.

Philadelphia finished with 19 shots, six on goal. Atlanta United put six of its 12 shots on goal. The Union finished with 2.7 expected goals to Atlanta United’s 1.8.

After Wednesday’s results, Atlanta United remains in sixth place in the East. It trails fourth-place Columbus by four points.

“I challenge my players for the second half to see some reaction,” Pineda said. “We know that we lost control in the last six minutes of the first half. But tonight, three penalties should have been called and only one was called. So I will say that I need a response for the 89 minutes of the game. Similar performances will give us some advantage in the finals because that’s how we should play. But today, three penalties should have been called and only one was called.”

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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.