Atlanta United let a really good opportunity to make history slip through its fingers on Sunday afternoon. In some ways it was a shocking capitulation by a team that has been dominant on the road against a Toronto FC team that has been awful all year. On the other, it was the inevitable conclusion of a regular season in which Atlanta United has failed to win in clutch occasions time and again.
Tata Martino spoke to the media after the game and he was his usual brutally honest, if slightly unrealistic and stubborn seeming, self.
His overall comments about the team’s play:
“I didn’t find a team with the defiance to turn the rhythm of the game. Even though in the second half we tried a little more, because furthermore I saw a team that had lost all of the football that we’d played up until two or three weeks ago and that’s the most important. Today we have to recover that if we want to have a chance in the playoffs.”
This is an interesting comment because it says something about the two games that preceded the team’s abject finale - Tata wasn’t happy about the games against New England and Chicago? Atlanta didn’t play poorly against New England, but the late goal showed a lack of concentration and perhaps was a theme that carried over throughout the season. But the game against Chicago? Atlanta needed a lucky ball falling to Franco Escobar and an own goal to win a game that they seemed totally out of sorts in. What’s worse, Tata basically used the same tactics against Toronto, he just happened to do it against a team that was much more talented and better coached than the Fire and the result was a disaster for the team not seen since week one of the season.
Tata was asked: “Did the game coincide with rumors that had have been popping up about your future and is that a fair assessment and do you think that the decision this week that you were not going to return affected the guys?” - In short, did the players quit on you because you are not going to be the manager anymore?
“For me no, but I couldn’t assure you that. I understand that the goal of the team was superior than anything that’s going to happen next year. We worked all year to achieve a goal, the players themselves put in a great amount of effort and tonight we didn’t play well.”
A question that the Skip Baylesses of the world salivate at - surely, the players quit right? It’s the kind of take that is beautiful in its simplicity and perfection. If you say yes they did then you are right and have won a sports argument without doing any actual match analysis or hard work. If you say no then the immediate rebuttal is ‘but the team lost’—never mind any other confounding factors, THE REASON is right in front of you like a narrative sprawled out like JarJar Binks on the Galactic Senate floor. Like I said, it is perfect and I’m sure will make for amazing comment section fodder.
Luckily, there’s always tomorrow - Atlanta will have a home and home series to reach its next goal in the MLS season, but the Five Stripes will have to pull out of it. Here’s Tata’s comment on how to do that:
“Something new is starting. It has nothing to do with the regular season and what ended today. This season, putting aside the game tonight, we did very well but now we have to focus on the playoffs. We have to try to make sure that what took place in the last 90 minutes doesn’t have an effect on our performance.”
I read this and I’m nervous. For a manager who is about to take over a team that will have to navigate the international foibles that is CONCACAF, Tata doesn’t seem to see that the MLS Playoffs are a glorified tournament where often times the team that wins is much more talented in terms of Concacafing and making games ugly than they are at playing beautiful attacking soccer. It’s clear that whatever result Atlanta gets in the post-season will come with Tata sticking to his managing philosophy regardless of the adaptations that the circumstances may require. What’s more is that aside from the MLS Cup, he has nothing to lose by taking a risk like this—his future is already mapped out and it doesn’t include Atlanta United.
Tata’s message to the team was much more critical:
“My message today to them wasn’t comfortable. Not at halftime or after the game. What we have to talk about for next week, we’ll start on Tuesday. Today, the reality is that we should have had a different type of performance. I think we betrayed ourselves because indefinitely it’s what we were talking about. A lot of effort since January 15 until today for 90 minutes is like throwing away a year’s effort. It’s clear that losing to Toronto away from home is a possibility, but what stands out is the way it happened.”
In a sense he’s right. Atlanta was on top of the table because it dominated all season long and was on the verge of having a historic season but lost one game and it cost it the Supporters’ Shield. However, the team also let the Shield slip through their fingers well before the 4-1 loss in Canada. The failure to get favorable results against NYCFC, the Portland Timbers, the New York Red Bulls, the Seattle garbage cowards, Sporting Kansas City, at DC United, and FC Dallas all led to this moment. He’s also absolutely right that the players didn’t execute his overly ambitious game plan and while the team didn’t play well, Tata should also take some of the blame for wanting to play a possession-based match when perhaps a better option would have been sitting back and hitting on transition against a team with an unstable backline on a terrible field in bad conditions with two of the best Atlanta United attacking players either injured or not starting.
He’s playing a bit of a dangerous game here - on the one hand lighting up the players is probably a good way to motivate them and the team has not played well lately. On the other - he’s leaving the club and if the players did give up on him Sunday, it’s doubtful that anything will change once the playoffs start after hearing this.