Atlanta United 1, Sporting KC 1: 5 observations

The done-to-death chant of “I believe that we will win” began echoing around Children’s Mercy Park, led by the supporters groups in The Blue Hell section of Sporting KC’s home.

Frustrated for the game’s first 90 minutes with just one shot against a stout defense, Atlanta United poured players forward in the final minutes of Sunday’s game trying to nab that elusive goal.

And then came one of those moments that may determine if the Five Stripes make the playoffs.

Michael Parkhurst chipped a pass into Brandon Vazquez, who entered as a sub in the 83th minute. Vazquez trapped the pass on his chest, and then headed it.

Sporting KC’s Matt Besler dove in and tried to clear the ball, only for it to bounce off a group of players and to Jacob Peterson, who played for Sporting KC from 2012-16 before signing with Atlanta United as a free agent.

Peterson took one touch with his right foot and hit a left-footed shot into the lower left corner to tie the game in the first minute of injury time.

The chant stopped.  The game finished 1-1.

“That’s too good,” said Vazquez, who said he didn’t know what the fans were chanting. “The fact that Jacob put it in…that’s too good.”

Here are five observations about the game:

Resilience. It was the second consecutive week that Atlanta United scored a tying goal in the final minutes after Hector Villalba did so last week in a 1-1 draw with Orlando City.

“Completely different circumstances,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said. “Last week we deserved to win. Tonight we should have lost.”

Atlanta United has earned 16 points from its 13 road games. That points total is second-most in MLS, trailing only Toronto, which has 17 from 12.

“It was important for us to get a point,” Peterson said. “It’s something we can draw on later in the year.”

Atlanta United will play eight of its final 12 games at its new home of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It went 6-2-1 in its old home, Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium. Nine of its remaining games are against teams below the red lines (playoff spots) in their conferences.

The expectation. The game featured Atlanta United’s league-leading offense (41 goals) against Sporting KC’s league-leading defense (17 goals allowed).

Instead of consistent moments of good play, neither team could maintain possession in a game that was as sloppy with its play and its officiating as a plate of Kansas City’s famed barbecue.

Playing without injured striker Josef Martinez for the third consecutive game, and left fullback Greg Garza, who suffered a separated shoulder during the MLS All-Star game in Chicago last week, Atlanta United’s offense couldn’t get on track, particularly down the left where Mikey Ambrose was in for Garza.

Much like in the previous two games against Orlando City, Atlanta United had difficulty finding that final pass. 

Some of that on Sunday had to do with Sporting KC’s disciplined defense.

The first goal. Sporting KC grabbed its lead in the 58th minute on a penalty kick by Benny Feilhaber. The penalty was the result of Latif Blessing being taken down in the box by Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. It looked as if Blessing may have dove after Pirez shouldered him off the ball, but referee Chris Penso quickly pointed to the spot. VAR made its debut this weekend, but Penso made no move as if he wanted to go to the monitor and review the call.

Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino was not pleased with the officiating after the game, saying the league needs to be tougher against players who dive and/or fake injuries, and that the penalty against Blessing wasn’t a penalty.

“For me it wasn’t a penalty,” Martino said of Blessing. “There was also a play in which he went down injured, left the field and then sprinted onto the field faster than he had the rest of the game.

“In this league, sometimes the refs don’t punish players for simulation enough.”

Martino and Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes had a long, animated conversation on the field after the game. Martino declined to say what they discussed, other than the quality of both teams.

Ambrose as a starter. Mikey Ambrose made his first start in the league this season in place of Greg Garza, who suffered a separated shoulder in the MLS All-Star game in Chicago earlier this week. Garza entered the weekend’s games as the leading chance-creater (26) among defenders in MLS. Without him, there wasn’t much offense coming down the left side against Sporting KC. Ambrose got involved a few times, but he wasn’t the threat that Garza has become.

Martino said he thought Ambrose played well.

Ambrose said he wants to improve his confidence going forward and building chemistry with his teammates before he makes his next start.

“It was a great experience, a lot of fun,” Ambrose. “I worked really hard defensively. Offensively, I tried to find the ball a little bit. I think I’m improving.”

The break. Atlanta United (10-7-5) will have more two weeks off before it next plays at D.C. United on Aug. 23 and then at Philadelphia on Aug. 26. The team should have all of its injured players back in training, with the exception of possibly goalkeeper Alec Kann, by the 18th.

During this break of more than two weeks, the teams competing with Atlanta United for a playoff spot will be playing.

Orlando City, currently in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with 30 points and Columbus, in sixth with 32 points, will have each played twice, including against each other on Aug. 18 in Florida. Philadelphia, in eighth with 29 points, will have also played twice with another game on Aug. 23 at Toronto.

Because of its superior goal difference, Atlanta United should still occupy one of the six playoff spots by the time it plays at RFK Stadium. Even if Columbus were to win once, which would bring it level with Atlanta United on points, it currently has a goal difference of minus-5. If it were to win twice, one of those victories would have come against Orlando City, which means the Lions couldn’t earn the six points needed to pass Atlanta United.

If Orlando City and Philadelphia were to win twice, Atlanta United would still be in the sixth playoff spot because of its superior goal difference. 

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