One of the biggest mysteries of the 2017 MLS season was the spell that D.C. United cast upon Atlanta United. Atlanta made the playoffs, as one of the best scoring teams in league history. The Black-and-Red on the other hand, finished 21st overall in the league, and had a historically anemic offense. Yet, on three different occasions, the D.C. Uniteds beat the Atlanta Uniteds.
Any hope of that carrying over into 2018 came to a crash on Sunday afternoon, as the Five Stripes defeated D.C., 3-1. A week after not being able to win against Orlando City, despite being up a goal and a man late on, United were second best for 90 minutes, only getting on the board through a late consolation goal from striker Darren Mattocks.
“Not good. We have to do a better job of trying to play,” Mattocks told reporters after the game, assessing United’s performance. “We have a bunch of road games, and we have to figure something out.”
His goal in the 86th minute was well taken, but came after the result was already sealed. Josef Martinez’s goal in the first half would have been a big obstacle for United to overcome. But two goals in two minutes, from Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba, sealed the Black-and-Red’s fate.
United were on the back foot for most of the first half, but made some small changes at halftime that seemed to level the playing field to a degree. But when Almiron struck in the 73rd, and Villalba looped a header home in the 75th, it marked the end of United’s chances to steal a point on the road.
“That [Almiron] goal hurt. It deflated us, and then we can’t give up a set piece goal like that,” centerback Steve Birnbaum told B&RU after the game in the locker room. “We have to turn back on, focus, and make sure we get through the end of the game without conceding another goal.”
Almiron’s presence was felt all afternoon. He was at the heart of two early chances for the Five Stripes, nearly scoring in the 16th minute. He had another look in the second half, several minutes before he ended the contest with a well taken goal in the 73rd minute. Receiving the ball at the top of the box, Almiron got the ball onto his favorite left foot, and then blasted an unstoppable shot into the top corner.
“Almiron is one of best I’ve ever seen in this league,” Head Coach Ben Olsen admitted after the game in his press conference. “They are a good team, but he is special. He’s nasty, and he makes them tick. Today, he showed up and played well.”
Olsen wasn’t all doom and gloom after the game. His team is facing a huge uphill battle the first half of the season, with 12 of 14 games on the road. They won’t get points every game, and will have to scrap for goals and results. Coming to Atlanta, and playing in front of 72,000 fans made the task tough, and United didn’t have the ability on the day to steal a point on the road.
“We’re a good team. I like the makeup of our team. I think we will respond,” said Olsen. “This will be a long first half of the year. We aren’t going to get a result in every road venue. This was a tough one.”
One point of emphasis from Olsen was the fact that United found the back of the net once again. For a team that scored 31 goals in 34 league games last year, scoring in back to back weeks on the road is a good sign, according to the 8th year manager.
“We’ve consistently scored goals and created chances. We still had a few chances tonight,” said Olsen. “You’re not going to get 20 looks on the road. You’re going to have to be efficient. There was one or two chances to get back into the game, but it wasn’t so.”
United gets their first chance at home next weekend, against the Houston Dynamo, at the Maryland SoccerPlex. It will provide the team a brief reprieve from the slog of playing on the road. Having played in front of so many fans on Sunday, it will be quite the difference in front of 5000 fans at the SoccerPlex.
But given that it’s just one of two home games before the July opening of Audi Field, there’s an utmost importance for United to get all three points, both in terms of the standings, and to help build confidence for the rest of the first half of the season.
“We have to do what the last two teams have done to us,” Mattocks said of the game against the Dynamo. “Keep the ball, create chances, be dangerous. We have to go get three points.”