There are no more excuses left for you to throw at the narrative. There’s no one left to blame for the misfortune. Simply put, Atlanta United got outsmarted and beaten fair and square on their own turf on Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t the brutal schedule’s fault. It wasn’t the evil PRO Referees out to get us. Ben Olsen and D.C. United came into a sold out Bobby Dodd Stadium with a game plan and executed it to perfection.
To say D.C. outplayed Atlanta would be mislabeling it. The stats show that beyond the 3-1 scoreline, the Five Stripes dominated in just about every facet of the match. Atlanta controlled 74% of the possession and took an extraordinary 26 total shots. Unfortunately, those lopsided numbers don’t account for anything but discussion fodder if the goal totals don’t fall in your favor. Like Muhammad Ali against a dominate George Foreman, D.C. waited until Atlanta United were overly confident and content raining down heavy punches one after the other to finally strike back through their counterattack. At first the own goal then several minutes later, a piece of individual brilliance. All of a sudden shock filled the stadium. Rinse and repeat in the second half and the dominance was all for naught in the end.
While it’s way too early to panic about anything. However, we’ve reached a gut-check point in Atlanta United’s inaugural season. It reminds of the scene in the 2000 movie ‘The Legend of Bagger Vance’ when Matt Damon’s character, a once great golfer struggling to find his way in a big tournament, tries to convince himself that “it’s just a game” and it doesn’t matter that he’s trailing by 12 strokes. Will Smith, who plays his caddie and the titular character, reminds him that golf isn’t as easy as he remembers — “Maybe you thought you was jus go'n sashay out onto that green an ole hero'a Savannah was just go'n reappear all by hisself.” — Anyone who thought this season was going to be easy for Atlanta, whether it’s the fans, the media, or the players themselves, got a big wake up call on Sunday.
Whether it’s the 45,000 fans expecting excellence. The media proclaiming them to be the greatest expansion team in all of sports. Or the players thinking they’re going to transform into superstars and stroke the ball around the field for ninety minutes like they’re wearing the Blaugrana in Camp Nou. Major League Soccer is not easy. Atlanta United has done everything right off the field to prepare the product on the field, but there are still going to be growing pains and need for adaptation. The team failed to adapt to D.C. United’s tactics and got burned.
Nothing is taking back those lost three points. Nothing is going to make a few more of those 26 shots find the net. Nothing is going to make those counter-attacks any less ruthless. The only way forward from here is for the team to learn from their mistakes and find a way to adapt better when the tactics call for it.
There’s no denying that Atlanta United is talented. If talent won matches, they’d be a top candidate for the Supporters’ Shield. But, soccer, and especially MLS, doesn’t work like that. Talent will only get you so far until familiarity with the league becomes an issue. D.C. were prepared for Atlanta’s early onslaught. With a little luck, they tired out the attacking juggernaut and then struck quickly on the break and then sat back and bunkered, something Atlanta wasn’t prepared to deal with.
Now’s not the time for anyone to feel sorry for themselves. It’s time for all involved in Sunday’s loss to identify what went wrong and address those mistakes. It’s a long season that’s only just getting into high gear. It’s important to remember that there will be a lot of ups and downs like this match and it will never be easy no matter the opposition.