An Atlanta United season that began with such promise continued its fevered unraveling with Saturday’s 3-1 loss to Charlotte at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Playing a team missing two of its best players, Atlanta United (5-4-3) lost its fourth consecutive game, including its third in MLS, in front of an announced attendance of 43,427. It was Atlanta United’s first loss at home this season with another game upcoming against Colorado on Wednesday. That match could be make-or-break for the season considering Atlanta United’s recent form of one win in its past seven matches after going unbeaten in its first four.
“I feel like we are not at the level of intensity that we need to have on and off the ball,” manager Gonzalo Pineda said.
The humiliation included former Atlanta United player Justin Meram scoring two goals, both simple one-timed shots. It included being forced to play the final 38 minutes with just 10 men because of a longer-than-necessary video review of a foul in the 18-yard box by Andrew Gutman that resulted in him being sent off. It included the team, despite fielding millions of dollars in transfers in the attack, taking just one shot in the first 35 minutes of the second half despite its deficit. JuanJo Purata scored for Atlanta United in the 87th minute. It was just the team’s second shot on goal.
Despite taking just six shots, and putting four on goal, Charlotte finished with the highest expected goals (2.27) against Atlanta United of any of its opponents this season. It was even higher than Columbus’ 2.01, which scored six goals against the Five Stripes.
“It feels like we we haven’t come back to that, the beginning of the season where I felt that full determination,” Pineda said. “I felt that commitment. And it’s not like we’re far away from that. We’re not that far. But it feels like a point of (them) wanting a little bit more, last two games especially. So we need to come back to that they need to realize that every point at home is is very valuable. We need to win at home every time.”
Throughout most of the match, a group of 1,000 Charlotte supporters sang and taunted their Southern rivals.
Pineda picked 10 of the 11 players who defeated Charlotte 3-0 in the teams’ first meeting this season. The difference was Quentin Westberg in goal for the injured Brad Guzan. Miguel Berry started at striker with Caleb Wiley and Luiz Araujo on the wings, Thiago Almada as the attacking midfielder and Amar Sejdic and Franco Ibarra in central midfield. Miles Robinson and Purata continued their streak of starts as the centerbacks, with Brooks Lennon and Gutman as the fullbacks.
Atlanta United played with energy in the first 17 minutes and could have been ahead 3-0 if not for good goalkeeping by Kristijan Kahlina. He got enough of a Lennon cross to prevent Gutman and Almada from easy goals early. Later, he denied Araujo in a one-on-one. That was Araujo’s first shot on goal in the past 6 ½ matches.
“I felt that not scoring in certain key moments, kind of affects the morale of the team,” Pineda said. “And we cannot be like that. We have to continue, you know, relentless pressure on the opponent, trying to score the first goal.”
But it was Charlotte that struck first when Meram was left unmarked at the back post for a simple tap-in of a cross in the 18th minute to give the visitors a 1-0 lead. Meram, who played for the Five Stripes in 2019, didn’t celebrate the goal. The sequence started with a cross from the left to the right by Meram, resulting in Atlanta United’s defense flowing that way. No one picked up Meram, who remained within a few yards from where he struck the cross when the ball came back to him for the shot.
The aggressiveness that Atlanta United showed in the opening of the game decreased. The team didn’t attempt a shot in the 17 minutes after Charlotte scored. The hosts started to find ways through Charlotte’s defense but failed to put a shot on goal during the rest of the half. It put just one shot on goal from six chances created during the half. Charlotte created just the one chance in the first 45 minutes.
Westberg stopped a point-blank shot by Kamil Jozwiak in the 48th minute to keep Atlanta United just a goal down. However, referee Lukasz Szpala, after a video review, ruled that Gutman pulled down Jozwiak during the shot. Szpala awarded a penalty kick to Charlotte and a red card to Gutman, reducing Atlanta United to 10 players. Karol Swiderski converted the penalty to give Charlotte a 2-0 lead in the 52nd minute.
Derrick Etienne came on for Sejdic in the 56th minute.
Meram added a second on another simple tap-in in the 57th minute to increase Atlanta United’s deficit to 3-0.
Giorgos Giakoumakis and Matheus Rossetto came on in the 71st minute for Araujo and Berry.
Almada was credited with an assist on Purata’s goal. It was his first goal this season and Almada’s seventh assist.
But the lack of intensity was too much to overcome.
“It’s really obvious,” Giakoumakis said. “I don’t think we were waiting on the first goal or the red card to lose our confidence. We play without confidence, the last games, because of the results. We have a tough period. But these moments, I think they create champions. And if you can come up strongly from this situation, it means you are strong. And we need to show now to ourselves, first of all, and to our fans, that we are really strong, we can get over it and come back to the glory days and victories.”
Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 1
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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 FC 3, Atlanta United 1
May 17 vs. Colorado Rapids, 7:30 p.m.
May 20 at Chicago Fire FC, 8:30 p.m.
May 27 at Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m.
May 31 vs. New England Revolution, 7 p.m., FS1
June 7 or Sept. 13 at Los Angeles FC, 10:30 p.m.
June 10 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.
June 21 vs. New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.
June 24 at New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.
July 2 vs. Philadelphia Union, 4 p.m., Fox
July 8 at CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.
July 12 at New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m.
July 15 vs. Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m., FS1
Aug. 20 at Seattle Sounders, 10:30 p.m.
Aug. 26 vs. Nashville SC, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 30 vs. FC Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 2 at FC Dallas, 8:30 p.m.
Sept. 16 vs. Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 20 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 23 vs. CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 4 at Philadelphia Union, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 7 vs. Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 21 at FC Cincinnati, TBA