As much as losing to Columbus in the MLS playoffs was painful, losing on penalty kicks hurt Atlanta United’s players and leaders that much more.
“It’s just not a great way to go out,” Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra said. “But they left everything out on the field. That’s something we are very proud of: the mental effort, the physical effort from those guys, just pushing through. To lose like that it hurts. We will look back on that next year and try to draw from that when we push forward.”
The Five Stripes were knocked out on the kicks, 3-1, on Oct. 26. Hector Villalba was the only make, with Julian Gressel, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Jeff Larentowicz off mark.
A few weeks after that stunning loss – just the second for the team in nine games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium – captain Michael Parkhurst said he was going to watch Columbus against Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday wondering what if.
“I don’t think until the season is over and we aren’t watching any more MLS games and then maybe the new season begins you’ll get over it,” he said. “It’s an ongoing process.”
How did a team that scored the second-most goals (70) in MLS fall in a shootout, where the taker is separated from the net and glory by just 12 yards of jangled nerves and a twitching goalkeeper?
A thread of that defeat started to be pulled as soon as it the construction delays to Mercedes-Benz Stadium began piling up.
The scheduled opening the stadium in March was pushed to the summer and then again to September.
Atlanta United’s schedule was adversely affected and resulted in a stretch of eight games in 24 days from Sept. 10 until Oct. 3. There were seven at home in the $1.5 billion palace and one on the road.
Atlanta United jumped out fast, scoring 22 goals and allowing three in going 5-0-1 in the first six games in the stretch. The results not only helped the team secure a playoff spot, it also allowed them to challenge for the second seed.
But it took a physical and mental toll.
It became evident that the team was affected by the pile-up in the seventh game, a 0-0 draw at New England. Gerardo Martino made slight changes to the formation and tactics to adjust for fatigue and the Revolution’s form at home.
Three days later, Atlanta United hosted Minnesota United, a team it defeated 6-1 for its first win in the season’s second game. The Loons rallied to score two goals in the final minutes to hand Atlanta United its first loss, 3-2, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Warning bells chimed.
Still, Atlanta United had a chance to secure a second seed and get a few more days off if it could defeat Toronto in its regular-season finale.
It didn’t happen. After taking a 2-1 lead, a Sebastian Giovinco free kick in the final minutes tied the game at 2-2, pushing the Five Stripes from second to fourth and a date with Columbus four days later.
Warning bells sounded louder.
“It was difficult. It was draining,” 33-year-old Parkhurst said on Monday during the team’s season-ending media wrap-up. “I’ve never experienced scheduling like that. Obviously, it was out of everyone’s hands.
“Every game was important, as usually they all are, but there’s no doubt that in that final game that we weren’t as fresh or as healthy as you want to be in the playoffs.”
Atlanta United and Columbus squared off in one of the more exciting 0-0 games before the penalty kicks. Shots clanged off the post. Brilliant plays were made on defense, including Parkhurst clearing a shot off the line. Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen was unbeatable.
But then there were substitutions in the playoff game that differed compared to those in the regular season.
First, Martino subbed out Yamil Asad, a seven-goal scorer and someone who had 20 complete games, in the 67th minute.
Then, he subbed out Josef Martinez, a 19-goal scorer, in the 114th minute when the shootout seemed probable.
Asked on Monday if he was surprised to be subbed off, Martinez said he would keep his opinion to himself.
Finally, Almiron, a nine-game scorer, asked to take the fifth penalty once the shootout was reached. Going fifth is a risk. While the player in the final spot can decide the result and be the hero, the game can be decided in the previous nine kicks, rendering the last spot unneccessary.
The shootout didn’t even reach nine. It was done after eight.
“I don’t know if I regret it,” Almiron said about asking to shoot fifth. “I think we have very talented players on this team and everyone is capable to stepping up and taking a penalty.
“Yes, it was painful not being able to have a shot, but I don’t regret it because all of the players on our team are very talented, high-level players. Everyone is capable.”
Now, Atlanta United has nothing but time to think back on what might have been until the 2018 season kicks off.
“It was disappointing the way things ended for us,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “We want to take that, as well as the other positives from the season, to make sure that come preseason, starting next season, we take the positives from last year and build on that. We take the bad and learn from it, get better from it and continue to grow.”