Atlanta United’s first game post-Pineda looked awfully familiar

Xande Silva (right) scored a goal to give Atlanta United a 2-1 lead. But the Five Stripes could not hold on. File photo

Credit: Photo courtesy of Atlanta United

Credit: Photo courtesy of Atlanta United

Xande Silva (right) scored a goal to give Atlanta United a 2-1 lead. But the Five Stripes could not hold on. File photo

And on the night before Father’s Day, Atlanta United presented its loyal fans with … a tie.

Only minutes away from a direly needed win, one that would have rewarded them for an improved effort, launched Rob Valentino’s interim managership with a morale boost and, for a change, ushered their supporters out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a result to celebrate, the Five Stripes reverted to the form that got manager Gonzalo Pineda fired.

The altogether unsatisfying conclusion Saturday night – a 2-2 tie with Houston Dynamo. There are ties worth celebrating, on the field and even for dads on their day. But a survey of the home team’s quiet locker room left little doubt that this one – in which Atlanta United led 2-1 from the 55th minute nearly to the end – did not fall into that category.

Said defender Derrick Williams, “Winning 2-1 at home and they score in – what was it, the 86th minute, around that – we need to see our games be better. Frustrating, disappointing.”

Said forward Daniel Rios, “It’s not what we’re looking for.”

Valentino called it disappointing, saying that “these are moments that we have to stop.”

And so a team that made a midseason managerial change hoping for a change in direction finds itself, at least after the first post-Pineda match, stuck on the same underachieving course.

There were facets of the match that indicated that Valentino’s leadership over the final half of the regular season could lead to an improvement in results. Atlanta United played a more direct, aggressive style that helped produce the first goal. In the 25th minute, with his team down 1-0, Rios chased down a long downfield pass from goalkeeper Brad Guzan and, after winning the ball from a Houston defender, attacked the goal and deftly created a scoring chance with a backheel to sub Luke Brennan. After Brennan fed midfielder Thiago Almada for a point-blank shot that was denied, Rios blasted the rebound into the net to tie the game at 1.

“When the opportunity presents itself, if the furthest pass forward is open, you go for it, whether that’s five yards or 25 yards,” Valentino said.

And, after taking a 2-1 lead on a Xande Silva goal in the 55th minute, Atlanta United avoided one of its plaguing sins – allowing the opponent to retaliate and score quickly. Williams made one of the plays of the match, deflecting a Houston blast that might have been goal-bound. In the 84th minute, Guzan saved the match – at least temporarily – by getting in front of Latif Blessing’s close-range header off a cross that would have tied the game at 2.

The 19-year-old Brennan, making his second MLS appearance, gave the team good production after he entered the game at the 18th minute after midfielder Edwin Mosquera left with an injury.

“I think what Lukey did was awesome,” Valentino said. “He showed bravery, he went at them. Like, he was a nuisance. I felt like he caused them a lot of problems, and that’s great to see.”

Silva also turned in a strong showing, scoring Atlanta United’s second goal in the 55th minute on a blast from near the end line at a near-impossible angle past goalie Steve Clark.

And, notably, the Five Stripes played without five key players, all starters – forward Giorgos Giakoumakis, defenders Luis Abram and Stian Gregersen and midfielders Saba Lobjanidze and Bartosz Slisz. They were either on their way out the door with a reported transfer to a Mexican club (Giakoumakis), on national-team duty (Abram, Lobjanidze and Slisz) or injured (Gregersen). In the first game of his second turn as interim, Valentino was dealt a rather meager hand.

Undoubtedly, there were reasons to be encouraged.

But it was the beginning and the end that left Atlanta United with this homely and unwanted tie. Houston was the better team early and scored in the fifth minute when the Five Stripes offered inattentive defense off a corner kick. It resulted in a goal from former Atlanta United defender Franco Escobar, left unattended on the back post for a header.

And, while Atlanta United held off Houston for much of the second half, a defensive lapse allowed the dangerous Blessing to take a pass into the 18-yard box off his chest and then bury it by Guzan.

“So (Guzan’s 84th-minute save) was kind of like a warning moment and we didn’t learn from it,” Williams said. “Very disappointing to concede a goal like that so late in the game. But yeah, we just need to wake up and we need to be better.”

“It’s a culmination of errors,” Valentino said. “We can’t allow it that late in a game.”

The tie did end Atlanta United’s unprecedented five-game home losing streak. And the Five Stripes did fight back from the early deficit. And they handled themselves despite the weakened lineup. And maybe Valentino needs more time to institute changes to turn around a team that has now won one game in its past 11.

But this was not a result to cherish, not for a team with aspirations of being a legitimate threat in the postseason playing at home. Not against a team that is in the middle of the Western Conference standings, not when the firing of Pineda should have everyone’s attention and not when it’s been made clear by president Garth Lagerwey that nobody’s spot on the roster is secure.

Put it this way – if Pineda were still manager, this result would not have reduced any of the heat on him.

“Maybe a little bit different, in some ways, the way we conceded, but I’m disappointed the way it ends up holding out,” Valentino said. “I’m not happy with that.”

In that, Valentino’s got company.