COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The mental errors that have prevented Atlanta United from again becoming one of the best teams in MLS continued in Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to Columbus in Game 1 of their best-of-three series MLS playoff series at Lower.com Field.

Atlanta United committed three self-inflicted mistakes that led to the Crew’s goals by Cucho Hernandez. How to eliminate the errors is a question that has been asked and answered by the team’s players and managers for several years. The answers typically can be slotted into “focus for 90 minutes” and/or “eliminate the little errors.” They were talked about in the days before this match, knowing that Columbus, the highest-scoring team in MLS, was more than capable of generating offense without the opponent’s help.

The defeat was Atlanta United’s third consecutive in a playoff match going back to 2019 and continued the team’s poor form in tournaments this season. It was beaten in its first match in the U.S. Open Cup and lost both of its Leagues Cup matches.

Offensively, missing Thiago Almada, Atlanta United set a franchise-low by taking just one shot. It tied its franchise record by not putting that shot on goal.

“If I had a magic wand to say, you know, wave it around, and all of a sudden we’re gonna go and create 15 chances and then obviously I do that, but that’s not how it works,” Atlanta United captain Brad Guzan said. “That’s not how professional sports work. And we’ve got to make sure we win (on Tuesday).”

Forced to choose a lineup that couldn’t include the suspended Almada, manager Gonzalo Pineda’s defensive-minded choices made clear that team wasn’t going to worry about keeping the ball and instead work to try to frustrate the Crew … and perhaps get the match to penalty kicks. Pineda switched from a two-centerback, four-player back line to three and five. The three centerbacks were Miles Robinson, Luis Abram and Ronald Hernandez, who hadn’t played centerback since the Cruz Azul match in the Leagues Cup, with Brooks Lennon and Caleb Wiley the wingbacks. The three midfielders were Matheus Rossetto, Tristan Muyumba and Jay Fortune. Xande Silva played underneath striker Giorgos Giakoumakis. Guzan was in goal.

The tactic wasn’t a surprise. Two matches against the Crew during the regular season showed that trying to play a similar style against them might not be the best idea. Columbus took the first meeting 6-1 in a match in which both teams were missing several key players. The teams drew 1-1 in the second match but Columbus had Atlanta United under pressure throughout.

Atlanta United's Brad Guzan, rear, makes a save behind United's Ronald Hernández (2) and Columbus Crew's Aidan Morris (8) during the first half of an MLS playoff soccer match Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

Atlanta United frustrated Columbus through the first 25 minutes, limiting the Crew to one shot on goal. It was a long-range effort from former Atlanta United player Darlington Nagbe that was saved by Guzan.

“I think the plan was working in the first half,” Pineda said. “We were limiting a lot the inner channels that they want to expose, and they couldn’t create many chances in the first half. At the end, Cucho does a good job. And then we felt that if we could have gone nil-nil at halftime, we could have probably the mental advantage to go in the second half.”

Muyumba received a yellow card in the 25th minute for a late tackle.

The disciplined defense came undone near halftime when a turnover by Atlanta United in Columbus’ defensive third turned into a 3-on-2 counterattack that was finished with a goal by Hernandez to give the Crew a 1-0 lead in the first minute of first-half stoppage time. Diego Rossi hit a crossfield pass to Cucho Hernandez, who held off Ronald Hernandez until he could hammer a left-footed shot into the goal’s upper left corner.

“It was a moment for the first goal, I’ve said goals change games, and up until that point I think we were frustrating them in terms of what they wanted to do,” Guzan said. “We lost the ball. And within two, three passes, they were in our box. So, just moments.”

Columbus put three shots on goal from nine taken in the first half. Atlanta United didn’t take a shot. The team had chances to get out and run but players either didn’t move the ball quickly enough or simply chose not to shoot. Other times, the team was playing too deep and couldn’t get the ball down the field to attack Columbus.

“I think it’s an area where we have to do better,” Pineda said

Muyumba flirted with picking up a second yellow card, which would have resulted in a red, in the final 20 minutes of the first half. He was subbed off, replaced by Saba Lobjanidze. The formation also changed to a 3-4-2-1.

Columbus increased its lead to 2-0 on a penalty kick by Hernandez in the 51st minute. The penalty was won by Alexandru Matan, who was fouled by Hernandez. Matan was in on goal because Silva passed the ball to no one and Matan was the first to it in Atlanta United’s defensive third. He dribbled in on goal, where he was fouled trying to cut back to his right.

Because there’s no aggregate scoring in the playoffs, Atlanta United could lose by two or it could lose by 10 and it wouldn’t matter. So, Pineda put on more offense in the 60th minute with Edwin Mosquera and Jamal Thiare replacing Silva and Hernandez and switching to a 4-4-2 formation.

Atlanta United took its first shot in the 64th minute when Fortune tried to curl a right-footed shot into the upper right corner. It missed wide.

In two games at Columbus, Atlanta United totaled three shots. If Atlanta United stays alive by winning Tuesday’s match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, in which Almada, a finalist for MLS MVP, will be available for selection, Game 3 will be back at Lower.com Field on Nov. 12.

“It’s round one, we now go into round two at home,” Guzan said. “And we’ve got to make sure we’re ready for that come Tuesday night.”

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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 Columbus at Atlanta United

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