In playing arguably its worst game this MLS season, Atlanta United was defeated 1-0 by NYCFC on Wednesday at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
With the loss, Atlanta United falls to 2-2-5 overall, 0-2-3 on the road. It will host New York Red Bulls on Sunday. It has scored 11 goals in nine games, including three in five road games.
Atlanta United may have had reasons for its poor performance on Wednesday. It played without manager Gabriel Heinze, who was serving a one-game suspension because of yellow card accumulation, striker Josef Martinez, who is with Venezuela in the Copa America, midfielder Emerson Hyndman, who is out for the season with a torn ACL.
Heinze said he doesn’t think his absence affected his team’s energy levels or its ability to react to NYCFC’s tactics.
“I’m not that important,” he said.
Instead, he said he saw a team that appeared to be tired after playing just a few days ago on Sunday when it hosted Philadelphia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Without Hyndman and Martinez, Atlanta United could seldom string together more than a few passes on offense. It finished with six shots, three on goal. This one game after putting up a season-high 20. It created a season-low four scoring chances, all by its fullbacks.
“We did not have that ability that we have been doing in the past,” Heinze said.
On defense, its man-to-man marking system on defense was consistently exposed by NYCFC. The hosts finished with 18 shots, seven on goal, with the winner scored by Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. It was the fifth time this season that Atlanta United gave up a goal or goals in the second half that resulted in it dropping points.
“We certainly didn’t look sharp,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “We can’t use (fatigue) that as an excuse. That’s the schedule. We need to find a way to be better.”
Atlanta United’s starting 11 was composed of Erik Lopez, in his first start at striker in a league game this season, Ezequiel Barco, Marcelino Moreno, Jake Mulraney, Franco Ibarra and Santiago Sosa in the midfield, Brooks Lennon, Miles Robinson, Anton Walkes and George Bello across the back, with Guzan in goal. Heinze said Lopez started at striker because he wanted a fast player to threaten the high defensive line that he expected NYCFC would play.
Atlanta United’s first shot came in the 29th minute. Bello, moving inside, passed to his left to Lopez, whose shot was saved by a diving Sean Johnson, a Lilburn native.
Atlanta United had great difficulty threatening NYCFC’s defense because its formation was so spread out with few players making decisive runs to show they wanted the ball.
“In the first half, the gaps between the back line and our attacking players was massive,” Guzan said. “You are ultimately then playing the distance of our passes are much longer, which gives them more opportunity to win balls.”
Also making it difficult was NYCFC’s high press. Atlanta United completed just 79.5 percent of its passes in the first half. It season average was 86.3 percent before Wednesday’s game. It completed 80.9 percent in the game.
“It caused us a few problems, to say the least,” Walkes said.
Mulraney was next with a shot a minute later that was also saved. The shot was created after Mulraney cut back to his left a few times as he moved across the top of the penalty box before uncorking a left-footed shot.
Atlanta United may consider itself fortunate in the opening minutes of the second half when Robinson tackled Keaton Parks from behind in the penalty box. Robinson got just enough of the ball with the tip of left foot for referee Ismail Elfath to not call a penalty against him.
Atlanta United was fortunate again in the 57th minute when a tackle by Lopez was reviewed for a possible red card. Lopez reached out for a ball and the studs of his cleat raked the leg of a NYCFC player. After Elfath reviewed the play he decided that the tackle wasn’t worthy of a red card.
Guzan made a reflex save with his right foot in the 61st minute on a close-range shot by Maxi Moralez to keep the game scoreless.
Erick Torres was brought on for Lopez in the 62nd minute in an attempt to spark Atlanta United’s offense.
Atlanta United’s first shot of the second half came in the 66th minute on a free kick by Barco. Johnson got down to his left to punch it away.
Atlanta United’s luck ran out in the 69th minute. Robinson passed the ball to Parks, who immediately passed it 15 yards down the field to Valentin Castellanos, who passed it few yards to his right into space to Tajouri-Shradi for the simple finish past Guzan.
Jurgen Damm returned form his injury for his first appearance in several games and Mo Adams came on for his first this season after undergoing hernia surgery in the offseason in the 81st minute in place of Mulraney and Ibarra.
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Atlanta United’s 2021 MLS schedule
April 17 Atlanta United 0, Orlando 0
April 24 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 1
May 1 New England 2, Atlanta United 1
May 9 Atlanta United 1, Inter Miami 1,
May 15 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0
May 23 Atlanta United 1, Seattle 1
May 29 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2
June 20 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 2
June 23 NYCFC 1, Atlanta United 0
June 27 vs. New York Red Bulls, 3:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
July 3 at Chicago, 8 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
July 8 at Nashville, 8:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
July 17 vs. New England, 5 p.m., ESPN
July 21 at Cincinnati, 7 p.m., FS1
July 24 vs. Columbus, 3:30 p.m., ABC
July 30 at Orlando, 8 p.m., ESPN
Aug. 4 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Aug. 7 at Columbus, 7:30 p.m. BSSO/BSSE
Aug. 15 vs. LAFC, 4 p.m. ESPN
Aug. 18 vs. Toronto, 7 p.m. BSSO/BSSE
Aug. 21 at D.C. United, 8 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Aug. 28 vs. Nashville, 3:30 p.m., Univision
Sept. 10 vs. Orlando, 7 p.m., FS1
Sept. 15 vs. Cincinnati, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Sept. 18 vs. D.C. United, 3:30 p.m., Univision
Sept. 25 at Philadelphia,3:30 p.m., Univision
Sept. 29 vs. Inter Miami, 7:30 p.m., FS1
Oct. 2 at Montreal, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Oct. 16 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Oct. 20 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Oct. 27 vs. Inter Miami, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Oct. 30 vs. Toronto, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Nov. 3 at New York Red Bulls, TBD, BSSO/BSSE
Nov. 7 at Cincinnati, 3:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE