Terrible weather, defending that was almost as bad and an inability to finish three early chances resulted in Atlanta United losing to Columbus 2-0 on a rain-drenched, cold Saturday night at Mapfre Stadium.
The Five Stripes, the defending MLS champs, remain winless (0-2-2) in the league this season with a break next week and a game at New England on April 13. The team will finish the month in last place in the 12-team Eastern Conference having been shut out twice in its first four league games and scoring one goal in each of the other two games.
“I think we can only talk about the first half hour of the game,”’ Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “You could play a little bit. We started very bad but afterward we played quite well with four good chances, three very good chances. They had two chances and scored two times. That’s football.”
Atlanta United’s players were supposed to be refreshed physically and mentally after not playing for almost two weeks following playing seven games in 24 days to start the season. It was hard to tell how the players were physically on Saturday because the field was soaked.
Mentally, Atlanta United didn’t look sharp. Columbus took advantage of two defensive breakdowns from a slew of Atlanta United players for two goals in the first half. The first score came from Pedro Santos in the second minute. The second from Gyasi Zardes in the 39th minute after a weather delay of an hour at the 31st-minute mark.
While Columbus scored its first two goals on its first two shots, Zack Steffen made two incredible saves in the first half to keep Atlanta United scoreless.
The conditions on Saturday were among the worst that Atlanta United has played since its first season in 2017. It has played once in snow and once in freezing conditions in Minnesota. It played in intense heat in Dallas and at Denver. It played in a steady rain and temperatures in the 30s earlier this season at D.C. United.
But Saturday was unique because the players couldn’t play soccer, particularly in the final 60 minutes. It was difficult to dribble. Passes along the ground couldn’t roll. Players slid yards at a time when they went to the ground.
“It was dangerous for our players and for the other team,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “You couldn’t call it football anymore.”
De Boer chose a 4-3-3 formation to start the game for the first time this season. It’s a holdover from the previous game against Philadelphia in which Atlanta United changed formations three times before going back to what it used successfully most of the previous two seasons. The change was facilitated by the return of fullback Franco Escobar, who suffered a shoulder injury on the first day of training in January. It was also the first league game in Atlanta United history that neither Michael Parkhurst nor Jeff Larentowicz started. They did make the 18.
De Boer said the formation switch was made to provide more support for Josef Martinez. De Boer wanted to see his team take advantage of its possession by creating more goal-scoring chances. In its three previous league games, the team averaged 64.5 percent of the possession, but scored just two goals while averaging 2.7 shots on goal.
Atlanta United finished Saturday’s game with 54.2 percent of the possession and 14 shots, five on goal. Martinez didn’t have a shot.
“We had our chances that we wanted to create but we have to be more decisive,” de Boer said. “We can build from here. We want to change the result as soon as possible.”
But Columbus struck first in the second minute before most of those in attendance had left the dry concourse for their soaked seats.
Neither Darlington Nagbe nor Mikey Ambrose, in at left back, tracked Artur on a run between the two on the right side. He ran onto a pass and hit a cross that eluded Miles Robinson as he wrestled with Zardes for an unmarked Pedro Santos to tap into an open goal for a 1-0 lead.
Artur’s run behind the defenders is the type of attack that de Boer has said he wants to see more of from Atlanta United. The problem is the team hasn’t been able to consistently get the ball with the needed numbers in the opponent's end.
Atlanta United had a chance to tie in the eighth minute when Julian Gressel played a one-two with Josef Martinez. However, Gressel’s right-footed shot from 12 yards curled wide.
The good news for de Boer was it was an early scoring opportunity.
The bad news is that Steffen was in goal for Columbus and was playing just like he did when the teams met in the 2017 playoffs.
Hector Villalba put Atlanta United’s first shot on goal in the 22nd minute. It was a deflected effort that forced an awkward save from Steffen, who had to dive low and to his right.
Steffen was forced into another save – this time low and to his left off the line -- on a low header by Gressel in the 25th minute.
The game was suspended because of severe weather at 8:09 p.m. with 30:28 on the game clock. The game resumed at 9:06 p.m.
Despite the grounds crew pushing water off the field just before the stop ended, parts of the turf on the left side (where the water was being pushed) was practically unplayable because the ball couldn’t be dribbled.
“Probably shouldn’t have come back out after the break,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said.
Still, Atlanta United attacked and still Steffen was there. In the 35th minute, Ezequiel Barco tried a right-footed shot from 7 yards. Steffen dove to his right to make the stop.
Columbus increased its lead to 2-0 on a goal by Zardes, who was standing unmarked near the center of the penalty box with four Atlanta United defenders in a square around him, in the 39th minute. On the play, Robinson and Escobar got caught upfield trying to close down Columbus’ Federico Higuain. They were unsuccessful. Robinho ran onto the pass and crossed to Zardes as Robinson and Nagbe tried to sprint back to join Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Ambrose, who were in front of Zardes but not defending him.
“Regardless of two weeks off or a couple of days, it’s frustrating,” Guzan said. “Things like that can’t be happening, and to concede goals off that...”
Columbus tried to increase its lead to 3-0 on a penalty kick in the 58th minute. The foul was won by Zardes as he and Robinson became tangled and fell in the soaked turf. But Guzan was there to save the effort by Higuain.
The game was stopped a few minutes later because players on both teams said that referee Joseph Dickerson was considering stopping the game near the 70th minute. However, MLS rules dictate that every minute of a game must be played. Dickerson then considered asking for the field to be squeegeed. Dickerson then decided on the game continuing in the terrible conditions.
Guzan said he would have preferred for the field to at least be squeegeed.
“You couldn’t have played in that,” he said. “You might as well have been playing on the beach. Conditions in the second half, it was a disgrace to be out there.”
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