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Mistake-prone Atlanta United loses to Columbus

ajc.com

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez

As soon as he heard a reporter say “sharp,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer raised a finger in acknowledgement.

De Boer just watched his team fall to Columbus 3-1 on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, turning its slim chances of finishing in first place in the MLS East to next to nothing with five games remaining.

He didn’t seem surprised by the result after the game because he said he could see it developing with poor training sessions leading into the game.

“You pushed the right button,” de Boer said. “That’s exactly what I said at halftime. We weren’t sharp enough. We were 1-nil up, but you had the feeling that we weren’t there today.”

The defeat, which saw the Crew rally with two goals after Josef Martinez gave the Five Stripes a lead with a goal in his 14th consecutive MLS game, means that Atlanta United is nine points behind NYCFC after its 2-1 win over San Jose on Saturday. Atlanta United (15-11-3), which remains in third place, has five games remaining to NYCFC’s four. The two will meet Sept. 25 at Yankee Stadium.

Atlanta United did secure a spot in the playoffs because Montreal was beaten by Cincinnati.

But that was it for the good news.

“We deserved it,” Julian Gressel said. “They were the better team.”

It was Atlanta United’s first game in two weeks and the team looked out of sync with its passing and communication on defense most of the night, particularly with Luis Diaz.  Columbus’ first two goals came in part because of decisions made by centerback Flo Pogba. The Crew’s third came because of an uncharacteristic mistake by centerback Miles Robinson. De Boer said he doesn’t blame Pogba. He said the team lost too many duels, particularly on second balls when the team was in transition between setting up its defense and its offense.

“We play a very attractive system, but if you lose too many balls, or lose too many duels, it becomes a transition game,” de Boer said.  “It costs you so much energy. We played more forward than the opponenet. They were waiting for us to make mistakes. They tried to punish us and they succeeded. It starts with winning your duels and don’t lose the ball in the second phase.”

De Boer made two changes to the starting lineup. Brad Guzan started as goalkeeper with Franco Escobar, Robinson and Pogba in as the centerbacks. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez didn’t start because of yellow-card accumulation. Eric Remedi and Darlington Nagbe were paired as the defensive midfielders, with Gressel as the right wingback and Justin Meram as the left wingback. Emerson Hyndman stepped in at attacking midfielder in place of the injured Ezequiel Barco, with Pity Martinez and Josef Martinez as the strikers.

After looking lethargic for the first 19 minutes, Atlanta United woke up and grabbed a 1-0 lead in the 19th minute. The sequence started with a precise pass from Guzan to Hyndman, who found space, near midfield. Hyndman played the ball into space down the left to Pity Martinez, whose cross was met by Josef Martinez at the near post to one-touch into the goal. It was Pity Martinez’s eighth assist and Hyndman’s third assist this season.

“After we go up 1-0, I think, our game plan went out the window,” Gressel said.

Columbus tied the game in the 53rd minute with help from poor defending by Atlanta United. Gyzasi Zardes carried the ball down the left. Robinson came out to defend. As Zardes moved toward the middle, Pogba came over to close him down, which left the space behind him open. Luis Diaz filled the space. Zardes passed the ball to him. Diaz hit a shot from a tight angle that Guzan palmed back toward the center of the penalty box. Zardes was waiting and hit a hard shot into the upper left corner.

Columbus took a 2-1 lead in the 60th minute on a fantastic shot by Diaz. He was again given space down Atlanta United’s left. Robinson blocked Diaz’s first cross. The ball came back to Diaz, who created a little bit of space near the corner of the penalty box before curling a left-footed shot into the left side of Guzan’s goal.

“Their transitions from defense to attack were very fast and it was like that all game,” Escobar said. “In the first half we were able to deal with it okay but in the second half it was harder for us. They make it 2-1 and after the third goal was an unfortunate play but I don’t think we ever found ourselves on the field or got into the game and they knew how to take advantage of the poor game that we played and that’s why we lost.”

Atlanta United missed a chance to tie the score in the 69th minute when Nagbe scuffed a shot from 7 yards away.

De Boer already was planning a double-sub before Nagbe’s miss, with Hector Villalba on for Remedi and Dion Pereira on for Meram in the 70th minute.

Another good chance was wasted in the 78th minute when Villalba hit a cross to the back post to Josef Martinez, whose shot sailed just wide. It was so close that the person who does special effects in the stadium was fooled into thinking the tying goal was scored, and fired up the train horn and pyrotechnics.

The defeat was sealed when Robinson, attempting to clear a cross, instead saw the ball bounce off his shin and into the goal in the 85th minute.

“We have to straighten our back and realize we have to be there from the first second,” de Boer said. “We weren’t there today. We were there on the pitch, but not the sparkling, what we normally see.”

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