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Struggling Atlanta United attack comes back to light in Red Bulls loss

Despite a man advantage for 55 minutes, Atlanta put just two shots on goal.

Right, the Atlanta United attack still is very much a work in progress.

The Five Stripes received a harsh lesson Sunday evening at Red Bull Arena, falling 1-0 to the New York Red Bulls. Atlanta enjoyed a man advantage for 55 minutes, but it managed only two shots on target. The five-game winning streak is over, as is the shutout streak. A sputtering attack that was papered over during a record defensive stretch is once again in the spotlight.

Atlanta had been grinding out results — three of its five consecutive victories came with 1-0 scorelines. Manager Frank de Boer warned on multiple occasions in recent weeks that if his team continued in its failure to bury opponents, it eventually would be punished. The Five Stripes held 67 percent of the possession Sunday, but in the 65th minute, Red Bulls substitute forward Tom Barlow dished out that punishment.

Daniel Royer lofted a long, curling cross into Atlanta’s penalty area and Barlow, pulling away from Franco Escobar and Miles Robinson at the back post, sent a glancing header across Brad Guzan’s goal and into the corner of the net. It was Barlow’s first Major League Soccer goal.

One moment of quality from the Red Bulls was enough to take all three points. Atlanta survived an opening onslaught and gained control of the match by the 15th minute. Tim Parker saw red for pulling the shirt of an in-on-goal Josef Martínez in the 35th, and that should have made the remainder of the game a formality for the Five Stripes. It did not.

The Red Bulls bunkered, and Atlanta, as it has before, struggled to create any dangerous chances. A golden opportunity arrived in the 55th minute, but Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez could not finish a perfect Brek Shea cross. After New York scored, Atlanta’s offensive strategy devolved into a shower of hopeful crosses that never truly made the Red Bulls sweat.

De Boer blamed his team’s lack of execution in the final third on fatigue. It is a valid excuse since Atlanta was playing its fifth game in 15 days. But tired or rested, the Five Stripes’ attack has rarely looked explosive this season. Some are suggesting New York’s early red card actually hurt Atlanta because it forced the Red Bulls to bunker, and Atlanta struggles against a bunker. That is not a valid excuse. Plenty of teams — most teams, maybe — will bunker against Atlanta. Until the Five Stripes can consistently break packed defenses down, they will struggle for results.   

Josef Martínez’s expanded playmaking role means his teammates must be more clinical in front of goal. And because Josef does not see as many chances as he did in Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s system, he must be more clinical when he receives the ball in opponents’ penalty area. De Boer does not seem likely to change his system, so his players must improve.

Perhaps there was a lack of quality Sunday due to fatigue, but fatigue will be an issue again this season. The next time Atlanta faces New York, at Mercedes-Benz on July 7, the Five Stripes’ will play their fourth game in 12 days. The roster likely will be depleted due to international call-ups for the Gold Cup and Copa America.

De Boer has built a defensive foundation good enough to make Atlanta a contender, but if the attack does not round into form, no result will be a guarantee.

A step back for El Pity

After steadily improving in recent weeks, Pity Martínez took a step backward on Sunday. The Argentine played three open-play key passes, but he missed a big chance with his off-target shot in the 55th minute. Shea’s first-time cross would have made Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson nod in approval, but El Pity, unmarked, could not test Luis Robles from inside 10 yards. Worse, he turned the ball over too often and stayed on the ground looking for fouls that never came, allowing the game to go on without him.

“[T]hey tolerate a little bit more [physical play] here — and I like that — and he has to adapt to that,” de Boer said after the game, per a quote sheet provided by the club. “Maybe in other leagues, you get rewarded for [going down easily], but here, a lot of times isn’t. It’s getting adapted. It’s getting better, but he’s still not there where we want it to be but he’s coming, that I’m confident of.”

Pity Martínez looked frustrated against New York. Now that the Argentina senior men’s national team has left the 25-year-old off its roster for this summer’s Copa America, he must overcome the disappointment and continue to work toward completely adapting to his new team. It will not be easy.

Yes, it’s a rivalry

Last week, Guzan and captain Michael Parkhurst both said that while the Atlanta-New York series has been intense, but they would not call it a rivalry. De Boer said he did not get the sense from his players that it was a rivalry contest, though he admitted club vice president and technical director Carlos Bocanegra had indicated games against the Red Bulls are more important.

Sunday’s game ended with Red Bulls fullback Kemar Lawrence and Atlanta winger Héctor “Tito” Villalba exchanging unfriendly shouts and chest bumps. The two sides came together in confrontation, and the scene nearly boiled over into a full-scale brawl.

“I feel like when we go back to Atlanta, it’s not going to be nice,” Lawrence said after the fact. “I feel like this is on the top of the list. I feel like there’s really a rivalry there. And you know when we go there because of the way their fans respond to everything and try to raise the level of noise in the stadium.”

MLS desperately needs regular-season games that feel big, matchups between teams that genuinely don’t like each other. The league has that in Atlanta United-New York Red Bulls. It is not a local derby, but it is a rivalry, and it might be MLS’s best.

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