Atlanta United has reached Sept. 1 and a two-week international break. They respite does not come a moment too soon. Frank de Boer’s team played well at times in a 3-1 loss at the Philadelphia Union Saturday night, but the Five Stripes ultimately ran out of gas.
Atlanta played eight games in the month of August and won seven, including two contests with trophies on the line. After the loss in Philly, de Boer praised his players.
“In the end, you saw we had a lot of players who were really tired,” the manager told Jillian Sakovits on the Fox Sports South broadcast. “We played midweek, and then when you get the goal against you, it was a mental setback, I think, for the team. So, I don’t blame them. We fought 95 minutes very hard. We had chances to make two or three goals, and at the end we lose. We have to accept that. I’m still very proud of what we achieved in this last stretch because we played, I think, 15 or 16 games I don’t know in how many days, so I’m very proud of them.”
The Five Stripes led at halftime thanks to a dazzling team goal finished by Josef Martínez — that extended his record scoring streak to 13 MLS games. Martínez had two opportunities to find the net earlier and will be disappointed he did not convert at least one. With the game level in the second half, the Venezuela international rounded goalkeeper Andre Blake but could only hit the post. Martínez stayed down with an injury after the play, and it may have affected his shot.
In the final 15 minutes, the Union hit hard in transition, and Atlanta’s midfield and backline could not match Philadelphia’s movement and pace. Brad Guzan accepted that he and his teammates were worn out but did not identify that fact as a reason for the loss.
“I think it’s clear to see that guys were carrying some heavy legs, but again you know it’s not an excuse,” Guzan said after the game, per a quote sheet provided by the club. “We stand up to it, we own it. [Philadelphia Union] are a good team, don’t take anything away from them, they’ve got good players. This was always going to be a tough game, regardless of our schedule leading to it.
“We now need to make sure we recover, and rest up mentally and physically the final push of the last few regular season games we come with good results.”
What a goal
It is a shame Atlanta lost, because one of the best goals the team has ever scored will be overlooked. Sparkling interplay between Josef Martínez, Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez and Darlington Nagbe resulted in an easy tap-in for the center forward.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) September 1, 2019
Union manager Jim Curtain applauded the move in his postgame comments.
“You saw on their goal, there is nothing really we could do about that but tip our cap and say that’s a hell of a one-two at the top of the box,” Curtain said.
A rest, then the closing stretch
Philadelphia’s win was one of its biggest in club history, and it broke the team’s record for points in a season. The Union are back atop the MLS’ Eastern Conference and will carry an underdog’s confidence through the final weeks of the regular season and into the MLS Cup playoffs.
“I think we showed MLS that we are not an afraid team; you know we can play against everybody because nobody is counting on us,” Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin said. “Everyone is against us, so everybody thinks that we are lucky, that because they lose we are up, but we showed today that we can compete against any team, especially at home.
Atlanta now sits third in the Eastern Conference, three points behind the Union and two behind New York City FC. It has six games remaining, including a huge matchup at NYC Sept. 25. NYC has two games in hand on Philadelphia and one in hand on Atlanta. The Five Stripes return to MLS play Saturday, Sept. 14, at the Columbus Crew.
“I think New York [City FC] is an important decision,” de Boer said postgame. “We have to wait, they have the best possibility to be on top [due to games in hand]. We have one game less than Philly we can still be on top if we win that game. I have confidence that we will do after our two-week break.”