October 30, 2019 Atlanta - Atlanta United forward Hector Villalba (15) and Atlanta United midfielder Gonzalo Martinez (10) react as they leave the field during the Eastern Conference Final soccer match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Wednesday, October 30, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Moments that shaped Atlanta United’s season

Atlanta United’s season, which ended with a loss to Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals, resulted in two trophies.

It was successful. Maybe not as successful as some expected, but considering the challenges the team faced:
New manager;
• An offseason that lasted slightly more than a month;
Selling its best player in the offseason;
• More games than any other team in MLS;
• More than 120 games missed by players because of injuries;
• Mid-season drama involving three players and its manager;
• Still, the team gave itself a chance to reach the MLS Cup.

Here are moments that shaped Atlanta United’s season:

The final 15 minutes at Monterrey. This was Atlanta United’s first Champions League. This was the second step – the team had already dispatched Herediano of Costa Rica — in the team’s first attempt to win its first trophy of the season. This also was the toughest road game the team had ever played, against what is thought to be the richest club in the Western Hemisphere.

And Atlanta United was losing by just one goal through 79 minutes. 

It had been battered by shots. 

It had a penalty appeal denied earlier in the game.

Just one goal.

Losing the first leg on the road by just one goal could be considered a victory with a home leg at Mercedes-Benz Stadium upcoming in a week.

Losing by just one goal was manageable.

Atlanta United didn’t lose by one goal.

Playing on tired legs because 10 of the 11 who started also started against D.C. United three days earlier on a cold, rainy, windy night in Washington, also started that cold night in Mexico, the team withered in the final 10 minutes.

It lost 3-0 with goals allowed in the 80th and 84th minute.

Manager Frank De Boer didn’t use any subs until the 90th minute.

Atlanta United did win the return leg 1-0. Monterrey played as if it was nursing its lead.

Atlanta United’s pursuit of its first trophy, which included a narrative of MLS teams closing the gap with its competitors in LIGA MX, was done, as was the narrative. For a few months.

Changing formations against Philadelphia. Atlanta United scored seven goals in its first six games. It was a total that included four netted in the return leg against Herediano at Kennesaw State.

Atlanta United hosted Philadelphia in its third league game on March 17. The Five Stripes had already lost 2-0 at D.C. United having put just two shots on goal and drawing 1-1 with Cincinnati at home having put just four shots on goal.

Through the first 45 minutes, Atlanta United put no shots on goal against Philadelphia.

It seemed that De Boer had seen enough of the 3-4-3 formation.

He changed it once during the game. He changed it again. Finally, trailing 1-0, Atlanta United found its tying goal from Ezequiel Barco.

It also found a formation, a 4-4-1-1 most of the time, 4-3-3 sometimes, that helped it win six of its next eight games.

Of importance, de Boer showed a maturity in being flexible and understanding of his players’ unique abilities and wants. 

That adaptability would prove important in the playoffs.

Meeting around the Columbus game. Atlanta United would lose its next game 2-0 at Columbus. 

The game was played in a rain so heavy it was difficult when standing on one sideline to see action on the other side.

Atlanta United took 16 shots, putting five on goal. Despite the conditions, the team started to resemble the team from the previous two seasons.

Sometime either in the week before or after that game — the story differs depending upon who shared it — there was a team meeting.

Only broad terms were shared with the media: Frustrations and expectations.

It seemed to work.

Atlanta United took 19 shots, eight on goal at New England in its next game. It won 2-0. It took 22 shots, eight on goal in a 2-1 loss to Dallas that de Boer said still puzzles him why his team lost. 

The players seemed happier.

The supporters seemed happier.

Results will make everyone happier.

The All-Star soap opera. All-Star week in Orlando began with a bang: A story in which Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was quoted as being critical of de Boer and his tactics.

Gonzalez Pirez later explained that the question that resulted in his answer was about the differences in de Boer and previous manager Gerardo Martino earlier this season. Gonzalez Pirez said he has no problems with de Boer.

Remember, there was a team meeting earlier in the season.

The context, though, didn’t seem to matter with the storyline of Gonzalez Pirez, and before him Pity Martinez complaining about de Boer’s complaints about him, being carried by other media throughout the season as a rift within the team.

The trophies. Though Atlanta United failed to win its first attempt at a trophy during the season, it did win two more: The Campeones Cup against Club America, another powerful club from Mexico, and the U.S. Open Cup with a win over Minnesota in the final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Campeones Cup may have been the more surprising.

Los Aguilas came out and appeared ready to dominate Atlanta United, but it was the Five Stripes who struck first with a goal from Emerson Hyndman after fantastic passing by Darlington Nagbe, Josef Martinez and Pity Martinez.

Club America answered 10 minutes later with a goal by Renato Ibarra and then took a 2-1 lead on a goal from Roger Martinez.

But Club America’s players appeared to tire. 

One of the knocks against the Champions League from an MLS point of view is that its clubs are competing in a competition before its league season has started. Its players aren’t sharp or fully conditioned.

The Campeones Cup flips that script. It is played just a few weeks into the LIGA MX season while MLS is into its final third.

Atlanta United began to seize control and got its reward with a goal — a word that fails to describe the power and precision — from Jeff Larentowicz, who struck the ball from 25 yards.

Atlanta United got its winner when Flo Pogba was knocked down in the penalty box. He said it was his first time ever drawing a penalty. 

Josef Martinez, who earlier missed a penalty kick, this time converted to give his team a 3-2 lead.

An MLS club defeated one from LIGA MX.

Loss at NYCFC. Atlanta United entered September with a chance to finish the season in first in the East. But it needed to win its remaining six games.

That stretch started with a 3-1 loss to Columbus at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

It continued with wins at Cincinnati and at home against San Jose.

But the team wasn’t playing as well as it was during the middle of the season.

Its wins were more the result of moments of individual brilliance than solid team play.

But points are points and Atlanta United was maintaining its chance at first.

Next was the most important game at NYCFC, which was holding onto first with a dynamic offense and disciplined defense.

The game was over after 23 minutes. NYCFC would win 4-1.

Like the season-ending loss at Toronto last season, this was a wake-up call for Atlanta United. The team picked up seven points in its final three games to finish in second in the East.

The missed penalty. Atlanta United was leading Toronto 1-0 in the Eastern Conference finals on a goal by Julian Gressel after good work by Pity Martinez and Barco.

It could have (should have) been on the verge of leading 2-0 when Pity Martinez was knocked down in the penalty box by Michael Bradley.

Josef Martinez, the team’s penalty taker, stepped to the spot to do what he had previously done five times this season and 11 times the previous two season.

Skipping his usual jump-stop-shot, Martinez ran straight to the ball and hit a low shot with his right. He put it too close to Toronto goalkeeper Quentin Westberg. The penalty was saved.

You know the rest.

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