Atlanta United’s 2021 postseason is over.
NYCFC knocked the Five Stripes out of the first round of the playoffs on Sunday to advance and take on Supporters Shield winner New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Meanwhile, Atlanta United is going home.
This match was about as demoralizing as it gets from Atlanta’s point of view. The Five Stripes put up a fight throughout most of the first half and even looked like the more dangerous side at certain points, though that means nothing if you don’t capitalize on that momentum and make it count for something. In the final 15 minutes of the first half, NYCFC changed the momentum and started showing glimpses of what was to come in the second half.
Two minutes after halftime, MLS Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos opened the scoring with one of the most inexplicable goals (in a bad way) you’ll see.
Somehow, someway...TATY GETS THE OPENER.#NYCvATL // @Audi #MLSCupPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/hOSowR7ZBG— Major League Soccer (@MLS) November 21, 2021
The way this goal occurred is shocking from Atlanta’s point of view. Atlanta isn’t ready for the short corner, Brooks Lennon is holding his hand up for an offside call on a corner kick, and then both Brad Guzan and George Bello watch as Castellanos’ shot loops into the goal. Whole lot of ball watching.
You’d think that Atlanta United learned its lesson after that first goal, but NYCFC’s Alexander Callens punished the flat-footed Five Stripes again just five minutes later to make it 2-0.
.@Alexcallens06 at the doorstep ⚽️ pic.twitter.com/Vg3uyCm07R— New York City FC (@NYCFC) November 21, 2021
“At the end of the day, it was set pieces,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “You switch off in those moments, you give them half a second, and we got punished. We were late to react. I wouldn’t say the intensity dropped, but we weren’t as sharp as we needed to be on those plays.”
Atlanta tried to get back into the game, but the goals never came for the Five Stripes.
I’m not the first to say this, but it’s worth saying again: Making the playoffs at all a couple of months ago was unthinkable after the Heinze era. Credit needs to be given to Rob Valentino for stepping in as the interim head coach and leading the club out of the club’s darkest moment. Credit also needs to be given to Gonzalo Pineda for stepping in as a professional head coach for the first time in his career and getting this team to where he did. Of course, Pineda isn’t going to claim credit for that, but we’re going to give it to him anyway.
Also, take a look at Atlanta’s bench for the first round playoff game.
#ATLUTD Starting XI vs @NYCFC pic.twitter.com/nYtcfIbr63— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) November 21, 2021
That is not a deep bench by any means. When Atlanta United was chasing goals late in the game, Pineda only made two subs by bringing on Jake Mulraney and Jurgen Damm (!) to replace Santiago Sosa and Luiz Araújo. That isn’t an indictment on Pineda, but more-so the roster construction as a whole. When those two players are your only means of goals off the bench in a playoff game, you got some issues.
The next time Atlanta United steps on a field for a competitive match, the team could look pretty different. With the expansion draft coming next month and potential off-season moves, both incoming and outgoing, Atlanta United under Gonzalo Pineda could be very different in 2022.
“I certainly think we’ve got ... a base to build upon,” Guzan said. “We all understand that this year has certainly been a long year, certainly been a difficult year from where we started to where we are. There’s a lot of frustration and disappointment in the locker room right now, but I think when you step back and you look at where we were, where we’ve come from, how we’ve gotten here, there’s certainly a base to build upon going into next season.”