Atlanta United remains in playoff contention after Miami draw

Atlanta United defender Anton Walkes, left, blocks a shot from Inter Miami midfielder Lewis Morgan during the first half of an MLS soccer match, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Credit: Wilfredo Lee

Credit: Wilfredo Lee

Thanks to its 1-1 draw Wednesday at Inter Miami, Atlanta United remains above the playoff line in the MLS East Conference.

But just barely.

The Five Stripes are in the 10th and final spot with 19 points. It is tied with Chicago but has a tiebreaker, leads Miami by one point and Cincinnati by three points. It trails seventh-place Nashville by two points and ninth-place Montreal by one point.

After this weekend’s games, which includes the Five Stripes playing at Toronto, the order of the standings could be significantly altered.

So, every point matters, and that is why Jake Mulraney’s goal in the 83rd minute, just three minutes after Miami thought it had secured all three points with Brek Shea’s goal, was so important.

“Anytime you lose a goal that late, you are happy to get a point," interim manager Stephen Glass said. "We didn’t come into tonight’s game hoping to just get a point. I think our performance on the night and with them scoring late and us having to come back late, we are sitting here delighted with a point tonight.

"It definitely carries us forward to the end of the season. The importance of us getting one point and them not getting three points is just as important.”

Here are four things of note from the game:

Another slow start. Glass has said until his face is Scottish blue that the team needs to get off to better starts in games.

It did against the Red Bulls in its previous game, but lost 1-0.

It didn’t against Miami, but fought for a draw.

Sometimes, things just don’t work like one wants.

But it’s not a sustainable model for success. With Ezequiel Barco’s return nowhere in sight, Erick Torres working to regain his fitness and Adam Jahn working hard but not getting results, the team can’t keep falling behind first.

Getting a point last night was the just the second time in 11 games this season that it salvaged a result after conceding first. Miami had 11 shots at the end of the first half. Atlanta United produced zero.

“First half, we know it wasn’t good enough," Glass said. "The message at halftime was that last week against Red Bulls we were sitting in the locker room at halftime delighted with our performance, but we came away with nothing. We know we haven’t played they way we want to in first half, but we are sitting here at 0-0 just like we were against Red Bulls. I think putting that little extra belief in them, there was a response in second half.”

Robinson and Walkes come through. Atlanta United was still in the game at the half because of stellar play of centerbacks Miles Robinson and Anton Walkes against Gonzalo Higuain.

Higuain, once one of the world’s best strikers, attempted seven shots in the first half but put only three on goal. Robinson blocked at least one and tackled Higuain in the box before another. When Robinson wasn’t there, Walkes was. The team blocked three shots in the first half and two more in the second half.

For the first time this season, Robinson looked like the player who last year finished in the top five in the MLS Defender of the Year voting. He was aggressive with his tackles and looked confident with his movements and passing. He finished with three tackles and completing 88 percent of his passes. Walkes had one tackle and completed 87 percent of his passes.

“His performance level for the whole 90 minutes tonight was incredible," Glass said. "I think it’s big for Miles as well. He doesn’t have a hugely experienced center half beside him. In previous years he’s played alongside Parky (Michael Parkhurst) and Leo (Leandro Gonzalez Pirez) a good bit. Overall, Miles was fantastic tonight, and we are delighted with his performance.”

Glass said he didn’t give Robinson any special instructions for defending Higuain, who has played at River Plate, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Juventus and Napoli, among others.

“I think there is sometimes a danger that players can show a little too much respect to the big-name guys coming into the league,” Glass said. “Maybe even a little fear there if you put too much into it. Higuain’s quality is undoubted. He’s a striker that can get his shot off with a half-yard space, can link play, is good on his right and left, but Miles comes up against a lot of strikers like that.”

Subs produce. The three players who combined to score the tying goal didn’t start the game.

Erick Torres had missed the previous five games with a knee injury. He came on in the 81st minute for Jon Gallagher. Torres played Jurgen Damm, who came on in the 57th minute, into space to run at Miami’s goal. He cut back his dribble, which sent Nicolas Figal sliding by, and squared the ball to Mulraney, who came on in the 70th minute, for the easy goal.

“Cubo (Torres) knows me very well from Mexico and that I like to get the ball into space, so he protected the ball well and played me into space,” Damm said. “Then I see Jake (Mulraney) running into the box. I wanted to make a pass to see what the defenders were going to do, and when I saw him free, I passed him the ball. Thank God we could score that goal and at the end we had another chance.”

On to Toronto. Atlanta United will play Toronto in Connecticut on Sunday and then won’t play again until it hosts D.C. United on Oct. 24. They are two of the team’s five remaining games.

Toronto has a three-point lead over the next closest competitor in the chase for the Supporters' Shield.

Atlanta United could take advantage of the break to possibly get Barco back as well help Marcelino Moreno’s adjustment into the team. He didn’t play against Miami because he didn’t recover well enough from his debut against Red Bulls.

Some of Atlanta United’s players have put in tough shifts the past few weeks. Wednesday’s game was George Bello’s 10th consecutive start, the eighth for Jeff Larentowicz and the sixth for Brooks Lennon and Emerson Hyndman.

“It is a lot to ask,” Mulraney said. “I think it was four games in 15 days or something, if I am not mistaken. It’s hard on the body; it’s really hard.”

Atlanta United coming games

Sunday at Toronto (6-2-4) in Hartford, Conn., 7:30 p.m., FSSE

Oct. 24 vs. D.C. United (2-5-5), 4 p.m., FSSE

Oct. 28 at Orlando (6-2-4), 7:30 p.m., FS1

Nov. 1 vs. Cincinnati (3-6-3), 7 p.m., FSSE

Nov. 8 at Columbus (8-1-3), 3:30 p.m., FSSE

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