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Atlanta United, DC United, and the seven stages of grief

The compelling, storyline-filled history between two clubs.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

“Last season, we had bad luck,” said Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. “We had a lot of chances. We could’ve scored, but we couldn’t. Now, we play smarter. We don’t make mistakes. This is key.”

“We’ve played them twice at home so far,” said Jeff Larentowicz. “Last year, we played them twice over there. Those are always different games. I really don’t know how to explain last year. D.C. was just an off game for us. They were a team we could never take control of. I think this year we’ve been more focused. This Sunday’s game is different with their new stadium. They’re a hot team.”

Pirez and Larentowicz summarized Atlanta United’s past with D.C. United as best as they could to reporters on Tuesday morning, but there was still a hint of confusion within their answers. It wasn’t a response filled with doubt, but just an inability to put in words what has come of this budding conflict.

This Sunday, Atlanta United and D.C. United will face off for the sixth time in the two seasons since the Five Stripes joined MLS. What’s culminated between the teams during these matchups can best be described in one word: odd. However, the weirdness is exactly what makes their history so intriguing. Sunday’s matchup is just the latest chapter in a back-and-forth story.

APRIL 30, 2017: SHOCK

Shock: A sudden upsetting or surprising event or experience.

In just the third home match of Atlanta’s history, they dominated early and were awarded with a goal as Kenwyne Jones found the end of a cross for a simple header in the 9th minute. As would be the trend for the rest of the season’s matchups against D.C., it appeared Atlanta would walk away with three points only for the Eagles to take their opportunities. An own goal from Michael Parkhurst, followed by second half goals from Luciano Acosta and Sebastian Le Toux gave D.C. the 3-1 win and spoiled the day for Atlanta supporters at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Atlanta outshot D.C. 26-9 with 74% ball possession.

JUNE 21, 2017: PAIN

Pain: suffering or discomfort.

Less than two months after their first fixture, Atlanta traveled to RFK Stadium to redeem their loss. Heading into the match, D.C. only won one of their seven matches in between the two meetings and were last in the Eastern Conference.

Just like the first match, the Five Stripes got off to a terrific start with an early goal, this time from Julian Gressel in the 17th minute. Yet again though, second half goals from Acosta and Patrick Nyarko saw Atlanta give up another lead against D.C. for a 2-1 loss. This was a concerning trend for supporters who wanted to see an expansion team in the playoff for the first time since 2009.

August 23, 2017: ANGER

Anger: a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, and/or hostility.

For the third time in six months, Atlanta faced a D.C. side that remained at the bottom of the East for the last 17 matches of the season. The Five Stripes went on to finish their inaugural campaign with the second best goalscoring total in MLS, only behind eventual champions Toronto FC. D.C. on the other hand scored the least amount of goals in the league. You may be wondering why I’m telling you this now. It’s only to foreshadow the ironic hindsight.

The tertiary matchup was a rather dull affair. A host of fouls plagued most of Atlanta’s attacking buildup, leading to only two shots on goal for the visiting team. Less than a minute into the 2nd half, frustration grows for Atlanta and Captain Parkhurst, who concedes yet another own goal against D.C.

If I can be afforded a brief pause to this storytelling, I recall scrolling through social media at this point in the third match to see a plethora of Atlanta fans utterly exhausted from the collective dismay these losses to D.C. were bringing to them. It was a first world soccer problem of the highest order, as it was likely Atlanta would go on to the playoffs once the regular season was complete anyhow, while D.C. stayed home.

However, the supporter dread was telling. In any sport, there’s a shame of sorts that falls on teams and their fanbases whenever they lose to inferior competition. One loss is bad enough, two losses to bad teams begs questions, but three losses to the same bad team breeds a shameful, and frankly funny, acceptance and sarcastic perspective that every match against D.C. United from this moment on would result in a loss. Parkhurst’s own goal proved to be the difference yet again as D.C. won its third consecutive match against Atlanta.

The expansion team’s first season ended in a penalty shootout loss to the Columbus Crew in the first round of playoff action, but it was a great first showing in the eyes of the Atlanta faithful. However, expectations were high entering 2018. The honeymoon phase was over and a run at the title was expected in Year 2. Almost every key member of Atlanta’s original team was set to return, but no amount of acceptance that D.C. United was going to beat Atlanta for the rest of eternity could’ve prepared anyone for what happened next.

February 13, 2018: DEPRESSION

Depression: feelings of severe despondency and dejection.

2/13/18: “The report goes into detail concerning the discussions had between Atlanta United and Yamil Asad, with the Five Stripes offering the 23-year-old more than double his $150,000 wage from last season, with multiple guaranteed years on the potential contract. After negotiations fell through, Atlanta was open to hearing offers from other clubs for his rights.” --Dirty South Soccer

Asad, Atlanta’s starting left winger who contributed seven goals and a scintillating 13 assists during the club’s inaugural season, departed the club.

It wasn’t the withdrawal that hurt. As a player who was on loan from Velez Sarsfield, there was always the possibility of Asad returning to his parent club after one season. It was the revelation that he was leaving for Atlanta United’s kryptonite that brought a hinted whiff of emptiness to the minds and stomachs of fans. A favorite was gone, and to one of the worst clubs he could go to in the eyes of Atlanta supporters.

Atlanta was without a key contributor heading into the 2018 season. Although the signing of replacement Ezequiel Barco was certainly a welcome one, it wasn’t long before the $15 million man picked up an injury in training and missed the first month of matches. Atlanta was now without a suitable left winger entirely, and spring had arrived.

MARCH 11, 2018: THE UPWARD TURN

The Upward Turn: Phrase—toward better conditions.

Matchday Two of the 2018 season came at a time of angst, as fans witnessed Atlanta torn apart by the Houston Dynamo 4-0 only a week prior, their worst loss in franchise history. For head coach Tata Martino, desperate times called for desperate measures.

One hour before the start of Part Four in Atlanta’s epic, titled “Perceived Inevitability to Defeat D.C. United”, Martino announced to the world that he would implement a 3-5-2 formation at the start of a match for the first time as Atlanta’s manager to compensate for the absence of a left winger. The biggest tactical change in United’s short history had come against D.C. United, and partly because of the Eagles’ new acquisition in Asad.

The match started as most of the other matchups had, with Atlanta scoring first. The Five Stripes carried their slim lead into halftime, but no one at Mercedes-Benz Stadium dared to dream. There was still plenty of time for things to go south yet again.

Miguel Almiron scored in the 73rd minute to give Atlanta their first ever multi-goal lead against D.C.

It’s only a two goal lead. We’ll find a way to mess this up.”

Tito Villalba joined in on the fun, adding a third for Atlanta.

OK, this will be tough to mess up, but we’ll find a way. There’s still 15 minutes...AND STOPPAGE TIME!”’

DCU’s Darren Mattocks brings one back in the 86th minute to cut Atlanta’s lead to two goals.

This blown lead will be absolutely embarrassing for us.”

The fourth referee calls for seven minutes of stoppage time.

Well, we’re absolutely blowing this. They can score three in seven minutes.”

96:57, 96:58, 96:59, 97:00....(whistle blows)

All doubt was laid to rest. Atlanta United finally defeated D.C. United. The curse was broken. There is a God, and its name is Redemption.

At the time, there was nothing that could make the moment better. Atlanta’s destiny was headed in the right direction. However, hunger grows the longer one’s deprived from nourishment. Eventually, you must eat again.

JULY 21, 2018: RECONSTRUCTION

MLS: D.C. United at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Reconstruction: a thing that has rebuilt after being damaged or destroyed.

Once again, the pre-match festivities were centered around a massive tactical change, as Ezequiel Barco was left out the squad for what was an unknown reason at the time. Instead, homegrown Andrew Carleton made his first ever MLS start.

A man I have not spoken about often is Josef Martinez. He did not play in the first matchup against D.C. and came in as a substitute for 27 minutes in the second meeting. The Venezuelan finally broke through earlier this season, but one goal in three appearances is a paltry amount for the single-season goal scoring record holder. In their most recent matchup, he made up for it with yet another record.

Although D.C. United grabbed the lead early on, Martinez replied with a goal right before the half to bring the teams level. Then, with some help from Carleton, Martinez found the back of the net again early in the second half. The striker completed his hat trick with a terrific solo finish around keeper David Ousted to solidify Atlanta’s second straight win against D.C., complete his hat trick, and earn the MLS record for most hat tricks with six.

Atlanta United appears to have found the key to sustained success against D.C. United, and now they must continue to think forward without overlooking the next match in front of them.

September 2, 2018: HOPE

Hope: a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.

Atlanta’s outlook for the rest of the season is clear. Qualification for the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League and an MLS Cup are the goals and both are attainable. However, first thing’s first is to beat this damn D.C. United team again.

Atlanta vs. D.C. has proven to be an incredibly compelling set of matches over the past two seasons. There always seems to be some sort of storyline surrounding the match, even when a particular storyline isn’t expected ahead of time.

For Atlanta, a string of critical and necessary changes forced them to get out of their comfort zone, grow as a team, and be more flexible. This can only help the Five Stripes down the stretch. Let’s see what Sunday brings, and how it impacts the team for the remainder of their hopefully successful season.