Atlanta United hasn’t won a playoff series since 2019 nor has it reached a championship match in any competition as it goes into what will be a very important winter transfer window for President Garth Lagerwey and Vice President Carlos Bocanegra as they try to improve a squad that has talent but just can’t produce enough with it.
With the loss, of Atlanta United’s many goals, it achieved just one, which was to host a playoff match. It was a bit of a hollow goal because every team in the first round of the playoffs got to host at least one match. The team failed to finish among the top four in the East. Atlanta United had a chance but couldn’t win any of its last three matches in the regular season. Instead, it finished sixth to set up a series with third-place Columbus with two games away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta United lost the first game, 2-0, and won the second, 4-2, to set up Sunday’s match.
Atlanta United manager Gonzalo Pineda used 10 of the 11 starters that led the team to a 4-2 win in Game 2 on Tuesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The only exception was Jay Fortune in for Matheus Rossetto, who sustained a calf injury in that game. The rest of the starters were: Giakoumakis, Thiago Almada, Saba Lobjanidze, Silva, Tristan Muyumba, Brooks Lennon, Caleb Wiley, Miles Robinson, Luis Abram and captain Brad Guzan.
Columbus made two changes from Tuesday, with Wilfried Nancy benching Julian Gressel and instead choosing Mohamed Farsi, and using Yaw Yeboah instead of Sean Zawadski.
Columbus scored the first three goals, helped by poor decisions from Atlanta United players.
Former Atlanta United player Darlington Nagbe gave Columbus a 1-0 lead when his shot from 20 yards beat Guzan to the near post in the 9th minute. The goal ended a long spell of pressure in which it consistently created numerical overloads by pushing one of its three centerbacks up the field and into the attack. Nagbe’s goal was the result of him intercepting a poor clearance by Robinson before he dribbled to his right and took the shot. Fortune tried to close down Nagbe. Pineda said the defensive angle could have been better.
Columbus increased its lead to 2-0 when Malte Amundsen, one of the centerbacks who moved into the attack and given lots of space by Fortune, uncorked a swerving shot from 30 yards into the upper right corner in the 17th minute.
Pineda said that team’s shape wasn’t what it should have been on the second goal. Lobjanidze was out wide as a fifth defender on a line, instead of playing as a fourth midfielder who would have been in that space.
“The second is a great goal but I still think out shape could be better,” Pineda said.
Muyumba received a yellow card in the 27th minute for a tackle from behind as the tried to stop a Columbus counter following a turnover near midfield.
“We were missing something in that part of the field,” Pineda said of the midfield. “I felt we also create enough chances and in good position sequences to unbalance them and score a couple more goals. But we couldn’t finalize some of those chances.”
Giakoumakis put Atlanta United’s first shot on goal, a close-range effort, in the 31st minute but it was saved by Patrick Schulte.
Columbus increased its lead to 3-0 in the 33rd minute on a goal by Alexandru Matan, assisted by Diego Rossi. Columbus took advantage of an errant pass by Silva in Atlanta United’s half. Rossi received a pass near the top of the 18-yard box, found Matan unmarked on the right, and he roofed hist shot from close range.
Guzan said Columbus is very good within its system, with players knowing where teammates are going to be and how to get the ball to them.
“We just couldn’t get close to the ball,” Guzan said.
Atlanta United cut Columbus’ lead to 3-1 in the 35th minute when Giakoumakis one-touched a shot after a short cross by Lennon, who was played in behind Columbus’ defense by Almada.
A Lobjanidze header went over the crossbar in the 39th minute as Atlanta United pressed to try to score again before halftime. Giakoumakis wasted another chance in the 45th minute by sending his right-footed shot over the crossbar from 18 yards. It was a good opportunity from a turnover created by Almada near midfield. A cross from Robinson rolled harmlessly across the face of the goal a few seconds later.
Giakoumakis told his teammates at halftime to forget the first half. Because they scored one goal, the pressure would swing back to the Crew. But the one thing they couldn’t do was give up a goal in the opening minutes of the half.
Columbus needed less than three minutes in the second half to increase its lead to 4-1 on a goal by Rossi, assisted by Matan. Rossi ran past Lennon and down the middle of Atlanta United’s defense, where he was found by Matan. A defender didn’t get close until he hit his right-footed shot into the lower right corner.
Silva scored in the 50th minute to cut Atlanta United’s lead to 4-2. It was very much like Giakoumakis’ goal, a one-touch effort from close range that was assisted by Lennon.
Mosquera came on for Lobjanidze in the 57th minute.
Schulte saved a header from Giakoumakis that would have gone into the upper right corner in the 61st minute.
Atlanta United increased its pressure in an attempt to find a goal to truly add some mystery to the outcome. An Almada shot was blocked. Crosses flew in from the left and right.
After the Crew withstood those attacks, it went forward in an attempt to create a three-goal margin but Guzan made two tough saves to maintain his team’s hope.
Another Giakoumakis header in the 80th minute was saved by Schulte as the game settled.
With the loss, Atlanta United has won just four of its past 36 road matches in all competitions, a trend which emphasized how devastating it was that the team didn’t finish at least fourth, which would have resulted in it getting possibly two home matches in the first round of the playoffs.
Giakoumakis said not having homefield advantage really hurt the team’s chances in the playoffs.
“We had to demand more from ourselves,” Giakoumakis said.
Columbus outshot Atlanta United 21-11 in Game 3, putting eight of its shots on goal to Atlanta United’s four. For the series, Columbus outshot Atlanta United 46-26, and put more shots on goal, 20-11.
“I think when you when we play the way that we do, obviously, at times we’re exposed, we’re open,” Guzan said. “I don’t know what the magic answer is. I said after the last game, we are an attacking team, we want to go forward, we want to create chances to score goals and be on the front foot. With that being said, we’ve we’ve got to find a way to be stronger.”
It may have been the final match with Atlanta United for Almada and Robinson. Rossetto is also out of contract. Santiago Sosa and Franco Ibarra have fallen out of favor with Pineda. Etienne, a prize free agent signing, became a bench player by season’s end.
“In the last three games, we faced a very good team, very good team,” Pineda said. “And they were better than us in two out of the three matches, so they deserve the win, and we need to recruit, analyze and improve for next year.”
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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule
Feb. 25 Atlanta United 2, San Jose Earthquakes 1
March 4 Atlanta United 1, Toronto FC 1
March 11 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte FC 0
March 18 Atlanta United 5, Portland 1
March 25 Columbus 6, Atlanta United 1
April 1 Atlanta United 1, New York Red Bulls 0
April 8 Atlanta United 1, New York City FC 1
April 15 Atlanta United 2, Toronto FC 2
April 23 Atlanta United 2, Chicago 1
April 29 Nashville SC 3, Atlanta United 1
May 6 Inter Miami CF 2, Atlanta United 1
May 13 Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 1
May 17 Atlanta United 4, Colorado 0
May 20 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 3
May 27 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1
May 31 Atlanta United 3, New England 3
June 7 Atlanta United 0, LAFC 0
June 10 Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 1
June 21 Atlanta United 2, New York City 2
June 24 New York Red Bulls 4, Atlanta United 0
July 2 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 0
July 8 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0
July 12 New England 2, Atlanta United 1
July 15 Orlando City 2, Atlanta United 1
July 25 Miami 4, Atlanta United 0 in Leagues Cup
July 29 Cruz Azul 1 (5), Atlanta United (4) 1 in Leagues Cup
Aug. 20 Atlanta United 2, Seattle 0
Aug. 26 Atlanta United 4, Nashville 0
Aug. 30 Cincinnati 2, Atlanta United 1
Sept. 2 Atlanta United 2, FC Dallas 2
Sept. 16 Atlanta United 5, Inter Miami 2
Sept. 20 Atlanta United 1, D.C. United 1
Sept. 23 Atlanta United 4, Montreal 1
Oct. 4 Philadelphia 3, Atlanta United 2
Oct. 7 Atlanta United 1, Columbus 1
Oct. 21 Atlanta United 2, Cincinnati 2
Nov. 1 Columbus 2, Atlanta United 0
Nov. 7 Atlanta United 4, Columbus 2