Atlanta United’s inability to hold a lead could prove crucial

Credit: MLS

Caption
Atlanta United walks away with 1-1 draw against NYCFC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, in which the equalizer came in the 90th minute.

Credit: MLS

Atlanta United’s inability to close games may prove to be the difference between hosting an MLS playoff game, playing on the road in the first round, or even making the postseason.

With Wednesday’s 1-1 draw against NYCFC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, in which the equalizer came in the 90th minute, the Five Stripes have missed on 11 points from games that they led in the 75th minute this season.

As a result of Wednesday’s draw, which came after an unnecessary foul followed by a superb free kick, the Five Stripes are in fifth place in the MLS East. The team is above the playoff line, but is only two points ahead of eighth-place NYCFC with four games remaining. Defeating NYCFC on Wednesday — and the team was just minutes away from doing that — would have resulted in Atlanta United having a four-point lead and facing the easiest schedule among the teams competing for a playoff spot. It will host Miami in its next game.

Had Atlanta United not thrown away even half of those 11 points, it easily would be above the seven-team playoff line and be looking at hosting at least one playoff game at home, where it is 8-3-4 this season.

Now, just as it was forced to do after blowing late leads to Philadelphia and Nashville at home earlier this season, the team will try to use Wednesday’s game as a “learning lesson” in what remains of a season that is walking a line of uncertainty.

“It’s certainly frustrating for all of us,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said postgame Wednesday. “We talked about it being five finals before the game — we have four left. We’re still in a decent position in terms of the table, but certainly tonight leaves a disappointing taste in our mouth.”

The reasons Wednesday, according to manager Gonzalo Pineda, were twofold. One was an injury sustained by Santiago Sosa in the second half. After he was subbed off in the second half, Pineda said the team lost control of the midfield.

Atlanta United midfielder Santiago Sosa (5) dribbles against NYCFC Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)
Caption
Atlanta United midfielder Santiago Sosa (5) dribbles against NYCFC Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

It may not have mattered as much if not for the second reason: an inability to score a second goal because of an inability to keep things simple.

“Something happened after we scored our goal where suddenly everybody wants to do a little extra touch, extra dribble, extra passing, extra whatever, and that cost us tonight because in those moments where we are dominating the game, we have to make sure that we score goals,” an obviously irritated Pineda said.

It’s not the first time that Pineda has bemoaned the team’s lack of killer instinct when leading.

It finished with 13 shots, putting seven on goal. Eight of those 13 shots came from inside the penalty box. The most egregious miss may have been George Bello’s in the second half when his shot from a few yards out hit the crossbar and bounced harmlessly away.

“You look at some of the chances that we had, and it’s the same old story,” Guzan said. “You look at a lot of the games where we’ve either dropped points or we’ve hung on and found a way. But in these games, goals define games. Plain and simple.”

Atlanta United has been in a similar place before and shown that it can improve from experience.

In 2018, Atlanta United had a chance to win the Supporters’ Shield with a good performance in the regular-season finale at Toronto. Instead, the team was blitzed. It looked and played horribly.

But ... it bounced back to win the MLS Cup.

If Atlanta United can qualify for the playoffs, it will give itself a chance to repeat history.

Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) dribbles against NYCFC Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021,at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)
Caption
Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) dribbles against NYCFC Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021,at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

“We’ve got to take care of business there and make sure we find ourselves in the playoffs first and foremost,” Guzan said. “But I hope we can use this as a learning moment. I think we have to. We will address it, but ultimately, we have to move on. We can’t change this result. We can’t change what happened on the play. We can’t change missing chances in the game. We have to be able to move on. We have to be able to now turn our focus to Miami.”

Pineda said the next week will be spent trying to improve that weakness. On Wednesday, the team was without Ezequiel Barco, who arguably is the team’s best all-around player but couldn’t play because of a red card, and Josef Martinez, the leading goal-scorer, didn’t start. But Pineda has stressed since taking over that the team must have an identity that doesn’t rely on specific players.

“We talked about at halftime that the best way to defend the lead was to score a second goal, and for some reason, I don’t know, but we were not clinical in those moments,” he said. “I will need to reflect again on how we train and how we prepare the team, making sure again they are sharp in the final third, have the vision to make the right pass, and sometimes playing a simple pass, the pass that is more natural and everyone is expecting, and the movement that everyone in the stadium is expecting, where sometimes it seems that we are trying to do something different.”

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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 Atlanta United 0, New York Red Bulls 0

July 3 Chicago 3, Atlanta United 0

July 8 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

July 17 New England 1, Atlanta United 0

July 21 Atlanta United 1, Cincinnati 1

July 24 Columbus 1, Atlanta United 0

July 30 Orlando 3, Atlanta United 2

Aug. 4 Atlanta United 2, Montreal 2

Aug. 7 Atlanta United 3, Columbus 2

Aug. 15 Atlanta United 1, LAFC 0

Aug. 18 Atlanta United 1, Toronto

Aug. 21 Atlanta United 2, D.C. United 1

Aug. 28 Nashville 2, Atlanta United 0

Sept. 10 Atlanta United 3, Orlando 0

Sept. 15 Atlanta United 4, Cincinnati 0

Sept. 18 Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 2

Sept. 25 Philadelphia 1, Atlanta United 0

Sept. 29 Atlanta United 1, Inter Miami 0

Oct. 2 Montreal 2, Atlanta United 1

Oct. 16 Atlanta United 2, Toronto 0

Oct. 20 Atlanta United 1, NYCFC 1

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, 7:30 p.m., FS1

Nov. 7 at Cincinnati, 3:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

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