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Atlanta United, FC Cincinnati play to 1-1 draw

ATLANTA — For a short time, it felt like the Atlanta United of old. Josef Martinez scored off a Julian Gressel assist in the fifth minute, but an 85th-minute equalizer from FC Cincinnati’s Roland Lamah left the teams splitting the points after a 1-1 draw Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. An evening that began with the unfurling of a banner commemorating United’s 2018 Major League Soccer Cup triumph ended with an announced crowd of 70,382 booing the home team.

Atlanta struggled to generate chances on attack for the third consecutive game. The Five Stripes now have scored one goal in their last 270 minutes across all competitions, and the defending MLS champions have one point from their first two league games.

“Sometimes you don’t play your best, but you have to win those games to get confidence,” manager Frank de Boer said in his postgame press conference. “We have to lift up.”

The Five Stripes dominated with 66 percent possession and completed 86 percent of their passes, but, for all of their time on the ball, they rarely looked threatening after the opening goal. Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez, Atlanta’s de facto replacement for burgeoning Newcastle star Miguel Almiron, is still trying to embed with his new team.

After suffering 10 fouls in the 3-0 Concacaf Champions League loss at CF Monterrey on Wednesday, Pity Martinez was once again the focus of an opponent’s defensive game plan. He moved across the formation in an attempt to find space, at times lining up on the left flank, in the left channel, up top as a center forward and in the right channel.

The consistent adjustments may have created difficulty for Atlanta in possession. An early ball over the top, which saw Pity Martinez and Josef Martinez rub shoulders as they both pursued the pass, was indicative of the lack of cohesion.

Cincinnati nearly pulled level on multiple occasions. A simple 26th-minute free kick found an open runner in the box — Atlanta continues to struggle with a new zonal marking scheme on set pieces — but centerback Nick Hagglund’s shot was put wide of Brad Guzan’s goal. Fernando Adi connected on a free header in the 55th minute, but he was deemed to be a quarter-step offside. Referee Allen Chapman went to his ear, and VAR confirmed the ruling was correct.

United did improve as the second half went on, and the 74th-minute substitution of homegrown talent Andrew Carleton for Pity Martinez injected some life into the side. Carleton buzzed around Cincinnati’s half and completed eight of 11 passes. It appeared Atlanta would get out of its home opener with a drab, but acceptable, victory against an expansion franchise that was hammered in its inaugural game last week, but those hopes were dashed almost out of nowhere.

United States international midfielder Kenny Saief, signed on loan from RSC Anderlecht and making his FCC debut with a 73rd-minute substitution, picked up the ball in Atlanta’s half and carved the Five Stripes open with a pass that took five defenders out of the play. Lamah, through on goal, controlled the ball near the top of the penalty area, took one touch and fired a low shot past Guzan’s stretched left foot.

De Boer called the fans’ full-time reaction “unfair” to his players who “worked very hard.” After the game, Guzan, Parkhurst and Julian Gressel, who returned from a knee injury that kept him out of the lineup against Monterrey, expressed exasperation with Atlanta’s inability to get into gear through five competitive matches. Guzan, in particular, sounded despondent.

“It’s been a rough few weeks for us,” the goalkeeper said. “Today feels like a loss. Last year, we weren’t used to losing. It wasn’t in our DNA. We found ways to win games, score goals — we found a way. And this year, that hasn’t been the case.”

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