Columbus, OHIO — Atlanta United fought back after falling behind two goals early in the first half to Columbus Crew at Lower.com Field in Game 3 of the Round One Best-of-3 series in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs, but the 5-Stripes couldn't catch the 3-seed in the conference and lost 4-2 on Sunday.
The result means the end of Atlanta United's 2023 campaign and elimination from the MLS Cup Playoffs. Columbus Crew advances to take on Orlando City SC in the conference semifinals.
Atlanta United entered the decisive match looking to ride the momentum gained from Game 2, an exciting victory over Columbus Crew at home. However, after Atlanta United failed to clear the ball out of their defensive third, Columbus was the side to take advantage early Sunday night. Darlington Nagbe, the former 5-Stripe, collected an errant clearance just outside of the Crew’s 18-yard box. The veteran took a few assured touches and ripped a low driven shot to open the scoring in the ninth minute.
Then, Columbus doubled their lead in the 17th minute. A long-range stunner into the upper right corner from Malte Amundsen put Atlanta United in a two-goal deficit early in the first half.
"Leaking goals has been our Achilles heel the whole season and one thing we definitely have to take a look at how we can do better to solidify that," Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda said during his postgame press conference. "That doesn't mean the defenders, the goalkeepers, the center mids - it's everyone as a whole, we need to do better."
Columbus would extend its lead in the 33rd minute. Diego Rossi slid a pass to Alex Matan on the right edge of the 18-yard box. Matan delivered a shot on his right foot to make it 3-0 in the 33rd minute.
Atlanta United pulled a goal back moments later. Thiago Almada fed a ball over the top to Brooks Lennon running down the right side. Lennon slid to get a foot on the end of it and knocked the ball centrally. Giakoumakis was able to connect with Lennon’s pass and slam it home to get the visitors on the scoreboard 3-1 in the 35th minute.
"As you saw last game, we were dominating, we played so well in our home. It was a different game," Giakoumakis said. "Even today, you cannot say we played bad. We had our chances, we could've scored even more. But when you're in playoffs and you concede four goals, you cannot expect to score four or five goals in order to win. It's not normal."
The visitors very nearly cut into the deficit heading into halftime with two strong chances. Giakoumakis had a golden opportunity for his second goal of the night in the 45th minute after Almada intercepted a pass to create a breakaway. Atlanta's striker took a shot, but it sailed over goal. Moments later, in a flurry following up from a corner kick, Miles Robinson took a crack with his right foot, but the low shot went wide and out of reach from Luis Abram running on at the far post.
After Columbus Crew added another to start the second half, a goal in the 48th minute scored by Diego Rossi, Atlanta United pulled another back moments later. Lennon was once again the player to put the ball in a prime area, feeding a pass to an attacker in the box from the right side. Xande Silva finished Lennon's cross with his left foot to make the scoreline 4-2 in the 50th minute.
"I'm proud for my team," Giakoumakis said. "We did everything possible. It was a season that, every three months it was feeling like a totally different season. It was something that, I feel like if we had the same team from day one, this season would be a totally different story."
The final 20 minutes of the match were a frenzy with Atlanta United searching for two goals and advancement in sight for the home team, but neither side scored again and the result at full time was 4-2 in favor of Columbus. Atlanta United lost two out of three in the series to Columbus and four out of five meetings between the two sides on the year.
"Columbus's movements are really good," goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. "They've got guys that can interchange their movements really good. They have a really good understanding of where the next guy's going to be, and it made it difficult for us to close guys down and get pressure to the ball when it was in wide areas, when it was central. Ultimately, they scored four goals and it was probably a bit of night and day from the other day. Don't ask me why. But we just, we couldn't get close to the ball."
Pineda employed the same starting XI he did Tuesday in Game 2 with one exception. Homegrown Jay Fortune started in the midfield for Atlanta United in place of Matheus Rossetto, who was listed as questionable on this week's Availability Report due to a calf injury.
Shots on target