Atlanta United still has many games to play, including another on Saturday at Philadelphia, but if it gets deep into September and still hasn’t locked up a playoff spot it can only wonder what happened every time it played D.C. United.
For the third time this season, the Five Stripes were beaten by what is arguably the league’s worst team. On Wednesday, a 1-0 defeat came after an own goal by Michael Parkhurst that followed a bizarre, physics-defying sequence in the 46th minute at RFK Stadium. It followed a 3-1 loss at Bobby Dodd Stadium on April 30, and a 2-1 loss on June 21 at RFK. Of D.C. United’s seven wins, three have come against Atlanta United. Of its 21 goals scored, six have come against Atlanta United.
“Benny (Olsen) is a smart guy,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “Sometimes I don’t think he gets enough credit. But he puts them in position to keep themselves in games and give themselves opportunities to win games.
“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how it got into the back of the net. They got three points. We don’t.”
The defeat snapped Atlanta United’s (10-8-5) six-game unbeaten streak and makes Saturday’s game against the Union a must-win to keep pace with the teams it is chasing. Toronto, NYCFC and Chicago are virtual locks, leaving five teams chasing three spots.
Though boosted by the returns of Josef Martinez and Greg Garza, Atlanta United was shut out for the third time this season.
Here are five observations.
The first goal. Russell Canouse’s header went off Parkhurst’s thigh and in in the 47th minute. The play started with a well-taken shot by Canouse. Brad Guzan leaped to his left to keep the ball from sailing into the upper right corner. Instead of spinning out of bounds, which is what physics dictate should have happened because of the angle of the shot and the deflection, the ball somehow rolled along the end line and stayed inbounds.
“Welcome to RFK, huh?” Guzan said. “It’s on a fault line, isn’t it? We were just inside talking about that. I’m not sure how. Regardless of how it stayed on the field, we need to do better to deal with the second phase of the shot.”
With Atlanta United’s defenders expecting the ball to roll out of bounds, Lloyd Sam ran onto it and hit a chip across the goal to Canouse, who headed it down and into the mouth of the goal, where Parkhurst was there and trying to keep it from going on.
Though the goal will be given to Parkhurst, Hector Villalba should receive some of the blame. He failed to track back on the opening shot, and didn’t track Canouse as he ran past him and to the back post to receive Sam’s cross.
The impact. With those now forever-lost nine points, Atlanta United would be well within the six-team playoff line and challenging NYCFC for second place in the East. Instead, Atlanta United (10-8-5) is stuck on 35 points and remains outside the playoffs in seventh with 35 points. It has played one fewer games than sixth-place Montreal and trails the Impact by one point.
“Every game impacts playoffs, obviously,” midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said. “We win on Saturday, we keep our minds right, we move into the home stretch, we will be fine.”
Injured players return. Atlanta United fielded what is arguably its strongest offensive lineup, helped by the return of Martinez and Garza from injuries. Martinez, a striker made his seventh start and 10th appearance this season. He has missed the past three games because of a bruised right foot. Atlanta United went 1-0-2 in those games. He missed 10 consecutive games earlier this season because of a thigh injury sustained while playing for the Venezuelan national team. The team went 3-4-3 in that stretch. Garza returned from a shoulder injury suffered in the MLS All-Star game. It forced him to miss the 1-1 tie at Sporting KC.
MLSSoccer.com noted that in 632 minutes with Martinez playing, Atlanta United has averaged 2.7 goals per 90 minutes. In 1,480 minutes without him, that average is 1.4.
Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said that Martinez looked similar to the rest of the team, OK.
Garza’s speed and passing ability provides a threat from the flanks in his system.
Martinez finished with three shots. He unsuccessfully lunged for a tough cross in the final minutes. After missing it, he got up and shook his head as if the goal just wasn’t to be.
The break. After the opening 30 minutes, in which the team created two decent scoring chances, Atlanta United looked like a team that hadn’t played in two weeks. Short passes were put out of bounds. The few good crosses Atlanta United were put across the face of the goal where no one was waiting. Martino said Atlanta United became predictable.
D.C. United did an excellent job of clogging the middle of the field and taking away any seams that Atlanta United could exploit with passes through the lines for Martinez, Yamil Asad or Villalba to run onto.
None of the Atlanta United players or Martino thought the break affected the team.
“Once we get out there, we were moving the ball like we always do,” Larentowicz said. “We were creating chances.” Atlanta United finished with 15 shots, just two on target.
The next game. Atlanta United will play at Philadelphia on Saturday. Atlanta United will be without Carlos Carmona, who is suspended after receiving his third yellow card. It came in the 78th minute. He has already been suspended once earlier in the season after receiving five yellow cards. He has received one red card and is tied for the league lead with eight yellow cards this season.
Martino said the team traveled with 19 players. He could use Julian Gressel, Kevin Kratz or even Anton Walkes as the second holding midfielder.
“Regardless of what happens in other results, we approach every game with the mentality that we want to win,” Guzan said. “We came into this one with the idea that we wanted to win. Now, we go into Saturday with the same mentality of going to Philadelphia and trying to find a way to get a result.”