Play was running smoothly at first for Atlanta United in the Oct. 30 Eastern Conference Final against Toronto FC. Winger Julian Gressel converted early in the fourth minute after a simple squared ball from midfielder Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez. Toronto captain and midfielder Michael Bradley cut down Pity Martínez in the box, forcing a penalty in the 10th minute and last season’s MLS MVP and top scorer Josef Martínez stood up to take the shot.
Excitement rumbled through Mercedes-Benz Stadium as the Venezuelan striker looked to convert for Atlanta’s second goal of the game. United fans were already dreaming of a second consecutive MLS Cup, with an eye on the Seattle Sounders, their potential opponents in the final.
But Toronto’s keeper Quentin Westberg’s save abruptly woke them up.
And minutes later, Toronto’s left-winger Nicolas Benezet curled the ball past United goalkeeper Brad Guzan into the far corner to level the score.
It would seem that the game’s momentum would tilt in Toronto’s favor after the missed penalty and the goal, but this was not the case. Atlanta still dominated the first half with multiple chances barely missing, wide or blocked by Westberg. To make matters worse, Josef Martínez grabbed at his hamstring multiple times throughout the first half and struggled to impact the game because of the apparent injury.
Going into halftime, instead of a coveted 2-0 advantage, Atlanta went in with a 1-1 tie as result of several missed chances and Josef Martinez’s struggles.
Early in the second half, United created more chances and pressed much higher up the field. It seemed like an inevitability that they would score.
But Mercedes-Benz fell silent at the 78th minute when Toronto gained the advantage 2-1. After receiving the ball from forward Alejandro Pozuelo at the top of the box, MLS veteran and midfielder Nick DeLeon took a phenomenal long-range strike that nestled itself into the top left corner.
Many critics focused on United’s lack of substitutions as a key issue. Atlanta winger Héctor “Tito” Villalba, who entered in the 80th minute following Toronto’s second goal, was the only player substituted in by United Head Coach Frank de Boer. Villalba struggled to make an impact, losing the ball several times in key moments near the end of the match. Clearly, United was running out of ideas in the closing minutes, as they resorted to lofting the ball forward countless times with hopes of success, only to have their meager plan thwarted by the defiant Toronto defense.
After being subbed out in the 80th minute, Atlanta United captain and defender Michael Parkhurst, featured on the big screen, looked on solemnly from the bench as the final whistle was blown. Having announced on Sept. 23 that this season would be his last for the club, his disappointment was obvious during his postgame interview.
“Tonight is just unfortunate,” Parkhurst said. “It was right there for us to host [the MLS Cup Final] again … We had a great start, great energy from the crowd tonight. It was awesome out there, and I will miss playing in front of those types of atmospheres for sure.”
United fans will be disappointed, and rightfully so. United’s efforts perhaps deserved a better reward. But, in the end, the sport can be ruthless, and the team’s inability to convert those early chances came back to haunt them.
Still, the club overperformed in many ways this season. While fans hoped for a second straight MLS Cup win, this season should be labeled as a mini-transition period. Not only did Atlanta lose beloved manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino to the Mexico national football team, but they also sold arguably one of the most talented players in MLS history, midfielder Miguel Almirón, in a big-money move to Newcastle United F.C. in January 2019. With these significant changes in mind, they have come farther than expected.
De Boer, the Dutch legend, former manager of AFC Ajax, Inter Milan, and Crystal Palace F.C., was a controversial figure early on in the season. The odds were stacked against him from the start, as his predecessor Martino set an almost impossible standard. The Martino-led United won the MLS Cup in just their second season ever thanks to his intense offensive philosophy. Meanwhile, De Boer brought an entirely different demeanor and mentality to the locker room, as well as unique in-game tactics to the club that differed from Martino’s. He experimented with various formations and personnel selection, which fans were quick to criticize after United struggled early on.
Almirón’s replacement came in the form of Pity Martínez, who broke the MLS transfer record
after his move from Argentinian side Club Atletico River Plate. Martínez played shockingly poor in his first few weeks with the club, and rumors stirred about a fall-out with De Boer and his dissatisfaction with his lack of playing time.
Eventually, Atlanta won some matches and gained momentum, with the defense picking up clean sheets and the offense improving thanks in part to Pity Martínez’s’s better play. The brilliance of Josef Martínez, the talent of young midfielder Ezequiel Barco and the ruthlessness of fan-favorite winger Gressel came together quickly and put Atlanta back in the spotlight for the rest of the season.
While United failed to win the most desired trophy in the MLS, they did win two trophies, defeating Mexican giant Club América 3-2 to win the Campeones Cup on Aug. 14, and triumphing over Minnesota United 2-1 in the U.S. Open Cup on Aug. 27. With the win against Club América, United became the first American team to defeat a Mexican team in the competition.
Despite the disappointing loss, fans should be encouraged by the team’s season performance and remain patient with De Boer, who is very much a long-term project. One game will never define a team, and while the Conference Final loss against Toronto is tough to stomach, the future looks bright for United. Not many clubs have the combination of a dedicated owner, experienced manager, talented players and a world-class fanbase, especially in the United States. Looking forward to next season, fans should be excited by both what is to come and what can be achieved once again.