Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A giddy Atlanta United season ends the way Atlanta seasons do

Well, Atlanta United is an Atlanta team. And when it’s playoff time, what do Atlanta teams do?

Um … what’s the opposite of Rising Up?

Yes, this is harsh. When a team is ousted in a shootout, that team has reason to curse the fates. But United can also blame itself for even having to play this match. Had it not conceded a late Toronto goal on Sunday, it would have had a bye into the next round. In this case, no bye meant bye-bye.

Final score: Columbus 0, Atlanta 0. Columbus wins 3-1 on penalties.

Technically, United played the Crew three times this season and still hasn’t lost, which will also be a source of offseason consternation. But Columbus did what it had to do Thursday night, staring down the usual massive crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and holding the team that scored the second-most goals in MLS to nothing over 90 minutes of regulation and 30 more of extra time. Heck, the home team could score only once on four tries in the shootout. When that happens, you can also curse yourselves.

Thus did a ridiculously giddy maiden voyage – one that began in Bobby Dodd Stadium way back in March – end in disappointment. Here we need to state the obvious: For an expansion team even to make the playoffs was a major victory, and the newborn franchise’s record attendance over venues both outdoor and indoor is already a happy part of this city’s sports history. (Thursday’s gate was 67,221, an MLS playoff best.) We’ll remember the frothing crowds and this swarming team long after this final night is forgotten.

Still, any postseason loss is a bitter one, and to go out without scoring over two hours of play was a thudding disappointment. United had a slew of chances to win it. Then again, so did Columbus, and the long game’s best chance fell to the Crew near the end of the second extra period. Harrison Afful headed over Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan, who’d come out to meet the ball and missed. Cool as you like, defender Michael Parkhurst hooked the ball off the line.

Had United won, Parkhurst’s clearance would stand on the upper shelf of great Atlanta playoff defensive moments, alongside Chuck Smith’s sack of Randall Cunningham in the Metrodome and Walt Weiss’ diving stop in the Astrodome. As it was, Parkhurst’s moment – splendid as it was – only delayed elimination.

From an Atlanta perspective, the shootout was a damp squib. Julian Gressel went first. His kick went left. So did Crew keeper Zack Steffen. Next for United was Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who’d had a glorious chance saved in regulation. His shot went down the middle. Steffen stayed put.

Hector Villalba briefly tied the shootout at 1. (Diving to his right, Guzan had saved against Kekuta Manneh.) Niko Hansen untied it. Jeff Larentowicz slammed United's last kick of its inaugural season off the left post, leaving only for the Crew’s Adam Jahn, who'd just been subbed in, to beat Guzan with a dinked PK to send Atlanta’s newest team home for the winter.

Said Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter: “You never know in penalty shootouts. It’s like I told their coach, ‘Both teams played well, but when you get to penalties, anything can happen.’ ”

Here we insert the boilerplate plaint: A shootout is about the worst way to decide a match, but when the teams have played two hours and nobody has scored, what’s the alternative? Play again in the morning? Rock, paper, scissors?

The match itself was terrific. Miguel Almiron, Atlanta’s playmaking No. 10, won the ball beyond midfield and, a long run and a deft Josef Martinez layoff later, hit the crossbar. An offsides call against the Crew was incorrect, quashing a play that wound up with the ball in Atlanta's net. That was the first half. It was good. The second half was better.

A Columbus penalty shout -- Anton Walkes bumped a leaping Ola Kamara in the box -- went begging. Gonzalez Pirez’s header off a free kick seemed destined for the net; a flying Steffen intervened. Martinez took a cross and banged it off the post. Villalba coulda/shoulda won it in the final minute of regulation. A poor Crew clearance fell to Martinez, who fed Villalba, whose kick was parried by Steffen.

A gassed Martinez was gone before the shootout. The better chances in extra time fell to Afful, who hit the crossbar at the end of the first 15 minutes and was denied by Parkhurst at the shank of the second.

Some nil-nil games are painful to watch. This was riveting. It had everything but a goal. On a different night, it might have had a half-dozen. (The teams took 41 shots.)

Said Atlanta coach Gerardo Martino: “Sometimes that’s how those games go. It’s a little unfair. We finished pretty well this season, and tonight we couldn’t finish.

Then: “We deserved a little bit more, but (it was) an even game.”

It was, except at the end. Only Columbus got to celebrate. Afterward, someone began a question to Martino about this being a successful season despite this result, and he shook his head. “I can’t deny it was a good season because we started from nothing,” he said. “That’s all we can classify it as – a good season. But from the talks we had, these players wanted to go a lot farther.”

That said, this was an expansion club that made our famously fickle city take note of soccer. For that, we’ll grant Atlanta United a mulligan. And it wasn’t as if this playoff loss was the worst any local team has suffered. Pretty sure this won’t crack the top 10. Pretty sure this postseason defeat won’t be the one Arthur M. Blank remembers most from the year 2017.

From Atlanta United's season ends in a shootout.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.