Atlanta United rocked by Real Salt Lake

Atlanta United forward Saba Lobjanidze celebrates after scoring a goal during the match against the Real Salt Lake at America First Field on Saturday July 6, 2024. (Photo by Mitch Martin/Atlanta United)

Credit: Mitch Martin/Atlanta United

Credit: Mitch Martin/Atlanta United

Atlanta United forward Saba Lobjanidze celebrates after scoring a goal during the match against the Real Salt Lake at America First Field on Saturday July 6, 2024. (Photo by Mitch Martin/Atlanta United)

SANDY, Utah -- Facing a challenge as tall as the Wasatch Range of mountains that frame America First Field, Atlanta United fell to Real Salt Lake 5-2 on Saturday.

Atlanta United was facing the second-highest scoring team in MLS and doing so without any of its Designated Players.

It gave up its fastest goal this season within the opening minute and three more from set pieces, including one when the league’s leading scorer, Cristian Arango, was left unmarked, to lose its second consecutive road match. Real Salt Lake’s Diego Luna scored a goal and had three assists. It was the most goals allowed by Atlanta United this season. The previous high was three.

“The goals that we gave up are extremely disappointing,” interim manager Rob Valentino said. “We have to work so hard to score so hard. And I felt like we gave it away. Whether it’s set pieces, whether it’s the first minute, whether it’s the even down to the fifth goal, that’s not good enough. That can’t be what breaks us.”

The consolations were a goal by Saba Lobjanidze that tied the match at 1 in the first half, and one from Daniel Rios to cut the host’s lead to two late in the match.

The defeat, combined with other results, dropped Atlanta United (6-10-6) from ninth place to 10th place, below the playoff line.

Valentino had no DPs he could put into the starting lineup because of the sales of Giorgos Giakoumakis and Thiago Almada, and the yellow card accumulation suspension of Stian Gregersen. Valentino selected Rios, the last remaining healthy striker, with Xande Silva and midfielders Dax McCarty, Lobjanidze and Bartosz Slisz, wingbacks Brooks Lennon and Caleb Wiley, centerbacks Ronald Hernandez, in for Gregersen, Derrick Williams and Noah Cobb, and goalkeeper Brooks Lennon.

About that challenge …

Atlanta United fell behind 1-0 in 48 seconds on a goal by Matt Crooks. Braian Ojeda megged McCarty as he dribbled through Atlanta United’s midfield. He passed it to Luna in space on the right. He put in a cross that either of two open Real Salt Lake players could have one-timed. Crooks took the honors. Atlanta United’s only touch before the goal was a header by Williams just after the opening kick.

Atlanta United settled in and started to create chances, including two misses from Rios, who was getting into dangerous positions.

The work paid off with a goal by Lobjanidze in the 31st minute, who played a backheeled pass from Slisz to Rios, who while facing Lobjanidze and moving to his right backheeled the ball into space to his left for Lobjanidze to run onto and pass into the right corner to tie the match at 1. It was Lobjanidze’s fifth goal and Rios’ second assist. The goal wouldn’t have happened without Silva and Wiley working 1-2 passes to draw defenders and create a passing lane to Slisz near the top of the 18-yard box. It may have been the prettiest goal Atlanta United has scored this season. Five players were involved. No pass went more than a few yards.

Atlanta United stayed compact in the first half and played defensively as a team to limit Real Salt Lake to two shots in the half. Both came in the first five minutes.

“It’s really frustrating, especially playing a very good team, one of the best teams in the Western Conference, a team that’s been excellent at home and to concede an early goal and then have a performance like we did in the first half where we could have been winning, should have been winning,” McCarty said.

Valentino suspected that around the 60th minute, playing in the thin air and their third match in eight days, his team might begin to tire. He and Real Salt Lake manager Pablo Mastroeni used to talk about the 60th-minute wall when they played at Colorado.

Real Salt Lake took a 2-1 lead in the 59th minute when Ojeda spun and shot from a few yards away. Atlanta United could consider itself unlucky. The sequence started with a corner kick that bounced around, hitting Williams before Ojeda connected.

“It was a back-breaker,” McCarty said.

Tyler Wolff and Tristan Muyumba subbed on for Silva and McCarty after the goal.

Real Salt Lake increased its lead to 3-1 when Arango was left unmarked at the backpost for a header back across the goal in the 68th minute. Lennon was left to defend two players after almost a minute of preparation before the kick by both teams.

Alexandros Katranis was left open on a corner kick and hit a curling effort to give Real Salt Lake a 4-1 lead in the 78th minute.

Williams said he didn’t think the players were mentally and physically tired after the 60th minute but he acknowledged the mistakes made defending the set pieces.

“It’s about ownership of those mistakes, shared ownership that I said at the very beginning that we have to keep that’s not acceptable when that happens,” Valentino said. “A knockdown happens on the first one. Second one, the most dangerous striker in the league is completely free. That’s not acceptable. And then the third one is just the alertness really. So it’s a shared responsibility. Players, staff.”

Rios headed in a Lennon cross two minutes later to make it 4-2. It was Rios’s second goal in as many games and his fifth this season.

Luna capped the scoring in the 84th minute. Real Salt Lake had a sixth goal taken off because of an offside.

Atlanta United outshot Real Salt Lake 14-12 and the expected goals was closer than one might think, 1.9-1.2.

But Real Salt Lake took advantage of Atlanta United’s many mistakes to seal the deal.

“We showed when we do defend as a team we’re actually pretty good at it,” Williams said. “But we don’t do it enough. We need to play that way throughout the whole 90 minutes. And so tonight, second half, you don’t defend as a team, you get punished.”

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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 Atlanta United 1, D.C. United 0

June 22 Atlanta United 1, St. Louis 1

June 29 Atlanta United 2, Toronto 1

July 3 New England 2, Atlanta United 1

July 6 Real Salt Lake 5, Atlanta United 2

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.