Atlanta United winless streak in MLS reaches six with ‘embarrassing’ loss to D.C. United

Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada #10 scores a goal during the match against D.C. United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday May 11, 2024. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta United)

Credit: Brandon Magnus/Atlanta United

Credit: Brandon Magnus/Atlanta United

Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada #10 scores a goal during the match against D.C. United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday May 11, 2024. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta United)

In a performance described as “embarrassing” by one of its best players, Atlanta United was beaten 3-2 by a hat trick of headers from D.C. United’s Christian Benteke on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The defeat stretched Atlanta United’s winless streak to six in MLS matches, tying for second-longest in franchise history.

The club’s three-match home losing streak is the longest in club history.

As has been the case during the poor run, Atlanta United (3-5-3) could only blame itself. It took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Thiago Almada, and then fell behind 2-1 because it was slow to win loose balls. Atlanta United rallied to tie the match at 2, only to fall behind again within a few minutes in front of an announced attendance of 42,822. If not for several quality saves by Brad Guzan, the final margin would have been worse.

“It was embarrassing,” striker Giorgos Giakoumakis said. “I know that it’s difficult to lift your head when you’re going from loss after loss after loss or dropping points, especially at home when last year it wasn’t easy for anyone to win against us in our home. So right now mentally, we’re really low.”

The team is winless in its past four matches at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a deflating trend as it slogged its way through the third match in a stretch of nine in 30 days. Boos could be heard at halftime and at the end of the match. The team is just one defeat away from tying for the most losses at home in a season in franchise history.

“This is the first one that I think we were really not sharp at all,” manager Gonzalo Pineda said of the matches during the winless streak.

Atlanta United knew that if it could defend Benteke it would give itself a chance to win what many considered to be a must-win match. Instead, the former Liverpool player bossed whomever tried to defend him, taking five shots and putting four on goal through 80 minutes. He consistently won headers with teammates typically the first to win possession. The plan was for Atlanta United’s midfielders to try to help win the aerial duals, or the second balls.

“I just think, they played well, we didn’t play our best,” said Noah Cobb, an 18-year-old who Benteke went after most of the night.

Pineda selected a strong lineup, led by Giakoumakis at striker, Almada at attacking midfielder, wingers Saba Lobjanidze and Edwin Mosquera, midfielders Tristan Muyumba and Bartosz Slisz, fullbacks Brooks Lennon and Caleb Wiley, centerbacks Luis Abram and Cobb, and Guzan.

D.C. United’s lineup was led by Benteke, the focal point of its offense.

Almada gave Atlanta United a 1-0 lead in the 16th minute when he converted a penalty kick, awarded after Giakoumakis was tackled in the box by Christopher McVey as both were reacting to a pass from Mosquera. It was Almada’s third goal this season.

D.C. United tied the match less than four minutes later when Benteke got in front of Cobb to put in a point-blank header in the 19th minute. The goal was too easy for D.C. United. It started with Benteke winning a header and D.C. United winning the second ball, then going down the pitch without being put under too much pressure. It was the third time this season that an opponent scored within seven minutes of Atlanta United scoring.

A Guzan save prevented Atlanta United from falling behind 2-1 in the 40th minute. The D.C. United attack started with a turnover by Muyumba in Atlanta United’s defensive third of the pitch.

Benteke struck again in the 45th minute, again with his head, to give D.C. United a 2-1 lead. Atlanta United defenders were chasing shadows as D.C. United worked its way down the field. Cobb deflected D.C. United’s first attempt to find Benteke but again its players got to the loose ball first. Jared Stroud put another cross to Benteke, who was open at the back post because Lennon was slow to cover for Cobb, who was getting up after he had kicked away the first cross.

“I think we didn’t do a good job on that (second balls),” Pineda said. “It’s really difficult to predict where the second balls are gonna go. And most of the times they got that or even if we got the second ball ... we were getting some pressure.”

Atlanta United created two chances in the first half, compared to D.C. United’s six.

In a curious move, Pineda put on Dax McCarty, a central midfielder, for Mosquera, a winger, to start the second half. Almada moved out to left wing. Pineda said he did that because he wanted McCarty to try to win the loose balls or second balls being created by Benteke.

Atlanta United tied the match at 2 in the 48th minute when a cross by Lobjanidze deflected off D.C. United’s Matti Peltola and into the goal. The sequence started when Muyumba created a turnover in D.C. United’s defensive third.

And, in what would have been a frustrating repetition had it not been for Atlanta United’s captain, Guzan was forced into a save less than a minute later when D.C. United created a turnover near the top of Atlanta United’s 18-yard box.

Atlanta United got lucky four minutes later when D.C. United’s Jacob Murrell sprinted unmarked into the 18-yard box before whiffing on a cross 10 yards from goal.

The third time proved costly.

Benteke scored his third in the 55th minute with a header from a corner kick to give D.C. United a 3-2 lead. It was the third time this season that an opponent scored within seven minutes of Atlanta United scoring.

Pineda put on more attacking players, Xande Silva and Daniel Rios, to try to produce the tying goal.

Almada won a free kick on the edge of the 18-yard box in the 84th minute. After a lot of time spent maneuvering players into and around D.C. United’s defensive wall, Almada’s shot bounced off it and away for a corner kick.

Atlanta United’s congested stretch of matches started with a 2-1 loss to Minnesota on March 4, continued with a win against Charlotte Independence in the U.S. Open Cup on March 7, and after Saturday’s match against D.C. United will continue at Cincinnati on Wednesday, at Nashville three days after that, at Charleston in the U.S. Open Cup on May 21, at home against Los Angeles FC on May 25, and at Inter Miami on May 29.

“Obviously as a player it’s frustrating, we all want to win, we’re all here to compete,” Almada said. “When you come into a club you want to be competing for titles so it’s frustrating but we just have to move forward.”

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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 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

May 18 at Nashville, 1:30 p.m.

May 25 vs. LAFC, 7:30 p.m.

May 29 at Miami, 7:30 p.m.

June 2 vs Charlotte, 4:30 p.m., FOX

June 15 vs. Houston, 7:30 p.m.

June 19 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 22 at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m.

June 29 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

July 3 at New England, 7:30 p.m.

July 6 at Real Salt Lake, 9:30 p.m.

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.