Atlanta United’s MLS season ends with loss at Columbus

Atlanta United's Jeff Larentowicz reacts during a 2-1 loss to the Crew Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. (Atlanta United)
Atlanta United's Jeff Larentowicz reacts during a 2-1 loss to the Crew Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. (Atlanta United)

Everything was going Atlanta United’s way on Sunday as it tried to make the MLS playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.

One of the other two teams it needed to lose or draw in their games was doing just that.

The offense, so anemic most of the season, was showing beats of life.

But, as has been the case all season, Atlanta United couldn’t rally.

As a result, the last thing it needed to do, win, to advance to the postseason didn’t happen. Atlanta United lost 2-1 to Columbus, undone by two penalty claims that were denied without a call or overturned after a review. Its lone goal came from a third penalty, scored by Marcelino Moreno. And, making it worse, at the end of the Eastern Conference slate on Decision Day, the final week of the regular season, had Atlanta United won it would have made the playoffs because while Montreal defeated D.C. United, Chicago lost to NYCFC. Atlanta United needed a win and for just one of those two teams to lose.

Atlanta United’s league season is over. All that remains is the second leg of a Champions League series scheduled for mid-December against Club America that it trails 3-0 and has little hope of overturning. The work toward the next season, if it hasn’t already, will begin: a new coach, deciding on futures of several players, including Ezequiel Barco, and acquisitions to add speed and creativity.

“Overwhelming feeling right now is disappointment,” interim manager Stephen Glass said. “But I told the players that we didn’t not make the playoffs on the performance tonight.”

The defeat wasn’t surprising because it was like so many this season. The team fell to 0-13-2 when the opponent scores first. The team put just three shots on goal, also a season-long issue that was exacerbated with season-ending injury to Josef Martinez in the first game at Nashville.

Atlanta United’s starting 11 included Jon Gallagher, Barco, Moreno, Jurgen Damm, Emerson Hyndman, Jeff Larentowicz, George Bello, Miles Robinson, Franco Escobar and Brad Guzan. Interestingly, Glass elected not to start either Brooks Lennon or Adam Jahn, two of the team’s statistically better players.

Atlanta United started brightly winning two corner kicks in the opening minutes but couldn’t take advantage.

Another potential opportunity came and went in the 14th minute when Moreno was tackled by Harrison Afful in the penalty box with the ball not won but the claim was waived away by referee Ismail Elfath.

Gallagher and Moreno combined in the 19th minute in the penalty box but Moreno’s cross/shot rolled across the goal with no teammate making a run to turn it into the goal.

Atlanta United had another penalty claim denied in the 24th minute when Gallagher was taken down in the box in a one-on-one situation by Columbus goalkeeper Eloy Room. Gallagher was sprinting toward goal after a through pass from Bello. Elfath at first ruled it to be a penalty but changed his mind after a review in which he determined that Gallagher was already falling down when Room made contact.

Glass said the coaching staff was told that Gallagher was slipping, which is why the penalty wasn’t called. Glass didn’t agree.

“Can’t for the life of me understand why the Gallagher one wasn’t a penalty kick,” he said.

Columbus took advantage four minutes later on a goal by Lucas Zalarayan, who got away from Meza and delicately chipped a low shot over Guzan and into the right corner. It was Columbus’ first opportunity to score in the game. Larentowicz described the goal as Columbus taking advantage of a tactical overload on the left that the team didn’t adjust to quickly enough.

“We switched off mentally and they played through us,” Guzan said, who then noted that has been a problem most of the season.

As the second half progressed, Columbus applied more and more pressure and got its second goal on a long run by Gyasi Zardes, who took on his defender and put a shot through Guzan’s legs and into the lower right corner in the 55th minute. The goal was assisted by Jose Artur, whose pass split Atlanta United’s midfielders and defenders.

Because Atlanta United needed to win and because it had scored at least three goals in a game just once this season, it appeared that the result was done and dusted. But the team had shown a propensity this season to increase its intensity after an opponent scores. It happened again after the Zardes goal.

Atlanta United cut its deficit to 2-1 on a penalty kick by Moreno in the 59th minute. It was his second goal this season. The penalty, which wasn’t reviewed by Elfath on a sideline monitor, was won by Damm.

Glass subbed in Jahn for Gallagher in the 69th minute to try to find another goal. Damm came off in the 76th minute for Lennon, as well as Erick Torres on for Hyndman. Jake Mulraney and Matheus Rossetto came on in the 86th minute for Larentowicz and Bello.

But nothing was working.

“Kind of a symptom of our season; it’s never been enough,” Larentowicz said.

Atlanta United was reduced to 10 men in the 89th minute when Escobar picked up his second yellow card.

Taking about the season, but he could have been talking about the game, Guzan summed everything up: “From start to finish, it wasn’t acceptable for Atlanta United.”

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