Ultimately, a poor eight minutes burns Atlanta United
Atlanta United lost 3-2 to the Philadelphia Union at Subaru Park Wednesday night, motly dashing their hopes at securing a season(s)-long objective of finishing in the top four places in the Eastern Conference to secure at least one round’s worth of home field advantage in the upcoming MLS Cup Playoffs.
That’s a shame, but it’s even more of a shame that the three goals that did them in all came in rapid succession at the end of the first half of play. The most frustrating aspect of this type of loss is it feels all too familiar — with the team losing it’s composure after suffering a blow that ultimately led to an insurmountable 3-0 scoreline at half.
Having said that, despite being put into that 3-0 hole...
It wasn’t as bad as it might feel
I’m not arguing that the team played well in the first half, and I’m certainly not arguing that anyone should feel content about the game with the way that it went. But if you were to only see that it was 3-0 at half, you’d probably assume the very worst about what transpired (particularly with Atlanta’s history of turgid road performances over the years). I do leave the game feeling frustrated, but the reason being is that Atlanta United was good enough to win that game, and arguably should have done. If the team was able to collect itself and limit the first half damage to one goal, they were always going to be in the ascendancy in the waning moments due to the extra week of rest this team had over Philly.
And it’s not just that, the other frustrating aspect of Atlanta United’s performance was that the team moved the ball well from back to from through most of the game. But the team was extremely wasteful with the ball in the final third, and one of the primary culprits of said wastefulness was Thiago Almada, the team’s most talented player. Almada has provided his fair share of dominant performances over the year, and it’s oh so frustrating when you can’t get one of those in a game with stakes such as this one on Wednesday night in Chester.
This was a taste of playoff soccer
You have to tip your cap to the Union, who are clearly a well-drilled team with some very talented players across the field. There’s a reason why this has been one of the most dominant teams in the league over the span of the last three seasons. You tip your cap not to concede anything to the opponent, but to acknowledge that it’s a quality side — the kind of team you can expect to compete against come playoff time. Atlanta will have to be better come those playoffs than they were tonight, and maybe the final eight minutes of that half will be the best gift they could ever get as a lesson of what will happen if they repeat some of those same types of errors committed Wednesday.
In 2018 when Atlanta United won MLS Cup, Tata Martino dropped Tito Villalba from his starting lineup to play with a more defensive Franco Escobar at RWB and moved the typical RWB Julian Gressel into the middle of the park to clog things up and ugly up the game.
Contrast that with Gonzalo Pineda last night finally getting to use all his new big transfer signings in the starting lineup together, only to a poor result on the road. I’m not calling for him to necessarily consider bringing one of these players off the bench going forward, but I do wonder if there’s something that can be gleaned from the first half capitulation similar to the way Tata Martino learned about his team when they blew the Supporters Shield title on Decision Day after a 4-0 road loss to Toronto.
Time will tell. Despite the result, I remain optimistic that Atlanta will challenge any team they face in the playoffs despite the odds being against them at this point without the home field advantage. We have to be realistic about this team and remember that earlier this year, they were getting outplayed at home by the Chicago Fire and giving up 30 shots to a team called Memphis 901 FC. Atlanta United is very much still a work in progress with the aim of becoming MLS champions once again, but they are making clear progress and already look like a team that is, if nothing else, dangerous with a puncher’s chance.