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Atlanta United comes within inches of playoff bye

A few inches of crossbar may have been the barrier preventing Atlanta United from securing a second seed and bye in the MLS playoffs. Instead, it is the fourth seed and will play again as soon as Wednesday in a knockout game.

A beautiful free kick by Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco that kissed the underside of the crossbar and went into the goal in the 84th minute dropped Atlanta United into a 2-2 draw on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in front of a record crowd. The tie dropped Atlanta United from the second seed in the East to the fourth. It will host fifth-seeded Columbus on either Wednesday or Thursday in a one-and-done game. Atlanta United is 2-0 this season against the Crew.

“I think the draw was fair,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said. “The way the game went and the way the two teams played.”

Sunday started with the possibility of the Atlanta United climbing to as high as the second seed, or falling as far as the fifth seed because four teams in the Eastern Conference were separated by just three points. Toronto needed just a draw to set an MLS record for points in a season.

As the game progressed, Atlanta United twice moved into second on goals from Yamil Asad and Josef Martinez because second-place NYCFC was stuck in a 2-2 draw with fifth-seeded Columbus, and third-seeded Chicago was losing at Houston.

Each time Atlanta United took a lead – the first on a penalty kick by Asad in the 31st minute and the second on Martinez’s 19th goal, Toronto fought back.

The first tying goal was scored by Jozy Altidore in the 60th minute on a miscommunication between Atlanta United defender Michael Parkhurst and goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Parkhurst said he thought Guzan was going to come out and claim a long through ball, while Guzan thought Parkhurst was going to clear it. Altidore fought through Parkhurst to poke the ball past Guzan. Parkhurst twisted his knee on the play and was later substituted. He said after the game that he was OK.

“We’ve got to deal with it,” Guzan said. “From our point of view it was a sloppy goal to concede.”

The second goal wasn’t sloppy. It was world-class.

From 25 yards on the right side of Guzan’s goal, Giovinco curled a free kick over the wall and into the upper right corner of the goal. Atlanta United’s Kevin Kratz, known for his ability to hit free kick, said it was an unbelievable free kick. Guzan said it was put in the only place he could considering the distance and angle.

“For him it’s not tough, for everybody else it’s pretty tough,” Atlanta United midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said. “You’ve seen him do it, I feel like, a dime a dozen the guy pops them into the top corner. You knew it was going to be dangerous.”

Atlanta United will benefit in its first-round game from playing at home, where it went 11-3-3 and sold out 17 consecutive home games.

The 71,874 tickets sold on Sunday broke the record set by the team in September against Orlando City. That total also means Atlanta United will average 48,200 tickets sold for its 17 home games this season, which breaks the MLS record of 44,247 set by Seattle in 2015, and the U.S. soccer record of 47,856 set by the Cosmos in 1978.

“If we couldn’t finish second it was important to finish third or fourth and host that play-in game,” Guzan said. “We know the atmosphere we create here at Mercedes-Benz and we are looking forward to it now. All of our attention, all of our focus, all of our energy here on out goes into every game as it comes.”

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