ATLANTA — Atlanta United’s bid to finish first in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference took a massive blow Saturday night. The Five Stripes fell 3-1 at home to the 11th-place Columbus Crew, and they fell further behind first-place New York City FC.
NYCFC defeated the San Jose Earthquakes earlier Saturday and now lead third-place Atlanta (15-11-3, 48 points) by nine points. The Philadelphia Union, second in the East, drew at home to Supporters’ Shield leader Los Angeles FC and are now five points up on Atlanta. The Five Stripes have five games remaining in their regular season, though they do have a game in hand on both New York City and Philadelphia
The result at Mercedes-Benz Stadium was no fluke. Atlanta led at halftime, but Frank de Boer’s team struggled from the start to raise its game after a two-week international break. Passes and touches were sloppy, and runs were ill-timed. As the team struggled over the course of 90 minutes, it grew more impatient with its possessions. De Boer said the performance was indicative of what he saw in training this week.
“We weren’t sharp enough,” the manager said in his postgame press conference. “We were 1-0 up, but you had the feeling that we weren’t there today, we were rusty today. We also had two trainings that I thought the sharpness wasn’t there.
“We play a very attractive system, but if you lose too many balls or you lose too many duels, you come in transition games, and it’s up and down and it costs you so much energy. For the opponent also, but we play more forward than the opponent. They’re waiting that we are going to make those mistakes. Then they are waiting with [Gyasi] Zardes and [Luis] Diaz with speed, and they try to punish us, and they succeeded in that.”
Zardes leveled in the 53rd minute, smashing in a rebound after Brad Guzan parried Diaz’s initial shot. Diaz scored the winner seven minutes later, taking a yard of space from Miles Robinson and curling a shot from the corner of the penalty area inside Guzan’s far post. On both goals, Atlanta was caught in transition and left scrambling at the back. It was an issue all night. Florentin Pogba, starting as a left center back in place of the yellow-card suspended Leandro González-Pírez, in particular was victimized when Columbus hit on the counter.
“You cannot blame Flo, because [speed] is not his quality,” de Boer said. “They had the quality on that side. A lot of times [in previous games] with speedy players against him, he did really well, but then we played better. I’m sure if Leandro is also playing in those kind of spaces, he also has trouble with Diaz. Speed is important, it is a weapon and they used it really well today.”
Sep 14, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Mercedes-Benz Stadium is seen before a match between Atlanta United and the Columbus Crew. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
The result was sealed when Robinson, fresh off his first two caps for the U.S. men’s national team, turned in a Diaz cross for an own goal in the 86th.
“We deserved this,” a visibly dejected Julian Gressel said in the locker room. “Not just today, because of our performance, but I think leading up to the game this week, with the way we trained. We’ve just got to take a look in the mirror, and it’s definitely not worth No. 1 in the East today.”
Gressel said he was aware of NYCFC’s win Saturday, but that it did not affect the team’s mentality. Speaking to reporters after a training session Wednesday, the wingback acknowledged restarting the engine after a two-week break, which followed such a frenetic month of August, would be a mental challenge. Saturday, he seemed to have difficulty comprehending Atlanta’s play in the loss.
“It’s normal that you’re maybe rusty a couple [training] sessions going out of a break like that where you completely want to get away, but you should be able to — especially if you’re as aspirational as us — pick it back up again and really be clued in,” Gressel said. “We weren’t able to do that for whatever reason. We’re obviously going to talk about it and then evaluate it, and we’ll hopefully change it.”
Josef Martínez — who else? — put Atlanta in front on 19 minutes, extending his MLS record scoring streak to 14 consecutive league games. The Venezuelan finished an excellent cross from Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez, though the official scoring was generous. Replay showed Josef Martínez’s glancing touch deflected in off the outstretched foot of Crew fullback Connor Maloney, who should have tallied an own goal.
A segment of Atlanta’s supporters’ section staged a protest over the final 10 minutes of the first half, lowering their flags and refraining from their normal hymns. The protest, organized by the Resurgence supporters’ group, was aimed at MLS’ ban on political signage in stadiums as it relates to the anti-fascist Iron Front symbol. The lack of a stadium-wide A-T-L viking clap around the 41st minute was noticeable. The singing and chanting resumed in full voice after halftime.
Atlanta received a drop of consolation after the defeat. When the Montreal Impact’s 1-0 defeat to FC Cincinnati went final, the Five Stripes officially clinched a berth in the MLS Cup playoffs. Where they will be seeded, and whether they can rediscover the level of quality that won two trophies last month, are open questions.
“Today after we went up 1-0, our game went completely out the window,” Gressel said. “That can’t really happen. We can’t get like that, especially in preparation for the playoffs where now every single moment of the game matters, and it’s just one game and you’re done.”