Playoffs? Atlanta United? Surely you jest

110120 Atlanta: Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan gets some air to block a shot on goal by Cincinnati to preserve a 2-0 shutout Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
110120 Atlanta: Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan gets some air to block a shot on goal by Cincinnati to preserve a 2-0 shutout Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Who knew that free falls came with rest stops?

There was Atlanta United Sunday, defying the gravity of an epic plummet just long enough to enjoy a 2-0 romp over a pliant visitor from Cincinnati. It was a rare glimpse of Atlanta United’s good ol' days, otherwise known as 2018.

And there they were afterward talking about playoff chances, which should seem like me announcing my candidacy for People’s 2020 Sexiest Man Alive. But having won for just a sixth time in 22 matches, they seemed serious. Come to think of it, I do look good in a mask.

ExploreAtlanta United's playoff situation heading into season finale

Everything played out as it needed to play out Sunday to keep United mathematically breathing. It won. The right two teams — Inter Miami and D.C. United — lost. There was all kind of enabling going on last evening. And now in the standings, where 10 of 14 teams in each division — yes, almost everyone qualifies — United finds itself tied for 10th with Chicago. The Fire have two games remaining to United’s one (next Sunday at the third-place Columbus Crew) and holds a slight lead in the points-per-game tiebreaker (1.05 to 1.0) over United.

When asked if a 6-12-4 team should be considered any kind of bona fide playoff contender, the Raheem Morris of Atlanta United, interim coach Stephen Glass, said, “It has been a bit of a crazy season, we don’t make the rules. We are where we are. If we could have been better, of course we would. But I do feel if we get in the playoffs, we can do something. ... If we do manage to get in the playoffs, we can be pretty dangerous.”

“A lot of people wrote us off, they’ve done it all year,” Glass said, “but players have been working really, really hard. Hopefully it turns and it turns at the right time and we get a lot of breaks. You just never know.”

Atlanta United interim head coach Stephen Glass watches over the pitch as the team prepares for its final home game Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta against Cincinnati. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Atlanta United interim head coach Stephen Glass watches over the pitch as the team prepares for its final home game Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta against Cincinnati. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

“You just never know” is seldom a rousing championship approach, but it is a vast improvement over what United faced at the beginning of the day.

We came here Sunday night to give last rites to Atlanta United’s short-lived reign of supremacy. But, wait, for one more night this team can still fog a mirror. That toe which we were about to tag just twitched.

When Atlanta United won it all in 2018, in just its second year of existence, we dared measure this team as a dynasty in the making. With its record crowds and its exciting style, United was considered by many to be the model MLS franchise. The league would spend the next decade trying to catch up to the cutting-edge genius of Atlanta’s soccer leadership.

What hubris that was. Forgive us, for we were new to this championship stuff. It turns out such assumptions insult the sporting fates. In both team-building and iPhones, there’s always a newer, better model awaiting.

We grossly underestimated the fragility of a winning make-up. We vastly overrated the ability of Atlanta United’s front office to overcome the loss of a dynamic coach (Tata Martino), the injury to a voracious goal-scorer (Josef Martinez) and the slow, constant bleed of players who lent United its immediate winning personality like Julian Gressel, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Darlington Nagbe and Tito Villalba. Turns out these were not just so many Lego pieces that can be swapped out for something roughly similar. Turns out they were fan favorites for a reason.

In truth, the ever-changing roster this season has been mostly a collection of mismatched talent incapable of expressing a unified thought on the field.

Just a year ago, United was losing in the Eastern Conference final, missing by a goal a chance to host its second straight MLS Cup championship. In personnel and personality, this team resembles that one scarcely at all. And resembles the ’18 championship team even less.

For United, such volatility brought with it new, previously unknown shades of vulnerability.

We around here haven’t experienced a whip-lashing reversal of fortune like this since 1999. Then it was the Falcons, just a season removed from the Super Bowl, that suffered the loss of its most important player, running back Jamal Anderson blowing out a knee. And in a blink, it went from NFC champion to 5-11.

This time it was Martinez lost to the season-ending knee injury. This time it was Atlanta United that fell off the edge of a flat sporting world. And in the process displayed a deeper dysfunction than an injury to a single player.

Now just two short years after winning a title, a team that, when given half credit for a draw, won at a 63% clip its first three years of existence has it exactly backwards now (36%).

The great, raucous crowd that it attracted to Mercedes-Benz has been dispersed by the coronavirus. A few thousand showed up Sunday and did their best, but they could not hope to recreate the booming chants of unrestricted times.

The team, too, made a stab at playing some of the old favorites. United’s first goal of the night was a wonderful cooperative enterprise, Jurgen Damm working the ball around two defenders and centering to Adam Jahn who didn’t miss the point-blank shot.

“A big part is scoring first and scoring early,” answered Jahn when asked what worked Sunday that hadn’t worked for most of this year. "It’s a lot easier playing from ahead than behind.

“That’s a big key. Especially going away to Columbus Sunday, we are going to need another good start. Not saying we’re going to score in the first five minutes but putting an emphasis on that is important.”

Columbus will be much the different, more difficult, test than Cincinnati. Atlanta United is not the team it was. Nor is it by any rational measure a playoff team. But it will try to do its best imitation for one more weekend at least.

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