CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It’s been a tough week for Atlanta United, as head coach Gonzalo Pineda said on Friday, after the team experienced a slew of unfortunate injuries, three to players who started the match against D.C. United last weekend.
Mixed with everything else – the team’s second consecutive match away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, facing an expansion club that’s been playing better, especially at home, in its inaugural season and meeting a regional rival fiercely hungry to get its first all-time win over the Kings of the South – it all felt like it was going to be a challenge for the 5-Stripes to get a result on Sunday.
And that’s partly how it played out on Sunday. Atlanta United lost to Charlotte FC 1-0 in the first all-time meeting between the two clubs at Bank of America Stadium. The result was Atlanta United’s second loss of the season, ending a three-match unbeaten streak, and Charlotte’s third win in its last four.
However, Atlanta United had chances to equalize, especially in the second half. That's when Atlanta United forced the issue against Charlotte, creating chances, and ultimately finished with more shots (16) than Charlotte (15).
"I think in the second half we were all over them,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “Whether it be the final ball or the final shot, we just struggled to then put the ball in the back of the net. And that’s the name of the game.”
It was uncertain going into Sunday how Atlanta United would react on the pitch without three of its key starters. The team was missing midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, midfielder Matheus Rossetto and striker Josef Martínez – along with goalkeeper Dylan Castaheira – after they sustained injuries last week. Atlanta is also still without Luiz Araújo, the flashy forward who scored the team’s first goal of the season.
In response, Pineda started the match with three center backs: George Campbell, Alan Franco and Miles Robinson. Santiago Sosa and Amar Sejdić slid into the midfield in place of Alonso and Rossetto.
Forward Dom Dwyer got his first career start in red and black, filling in the no. 9 role most often occupied by Martínez. The MLS veteran had the first shot of the match in the third minute. The striker tried to turn and take his shot, but Charlotte goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina was in good position for the save.
Atlanta United dominated possession the first 10 minutes. After that point, Charlotte FC looked like the more balanced and dynamic side in the first half.
"We knew we needed to have more patience in our buildup so we were really able to imbalance them, and I think the moments we did that, that's where we succeed," Pineda said. "But at moments we were very direct, we tried to force balls into tough areas and they were very good at pressing those half spaces that we want to occupy."
After knocking on the door with two dangerous chances, Charlotte FC scored on a direct corner kick in the 11th minute. Midfielder Jordy Alcívar’s olimpico curled into the netting on the far post past goalkeeper Guzan’s outstretched arms.
The 5-Stripes had one of their best chances in the 33rd minute on a combination that led to Thiago Almada sending the ball wide. Campbell passed up to Gutman, who delivered a cross inside the box that found Moreno for a firm, one-touch shot with the inside of his foot. Kahlina’s block led to an Atlanta corner kick.
In the first half, Charlotte had 10 shots, twice as many as Atlanta, and forced Atlanta United to make 12 clearances.
"We had a lot of players coming to the ball today, but not a lot of players running behind, and that’s something that we all need to work on collectively,” defender Brooks Lennon said.
Pineda made several substitutions in the second half. In the 60th minute, he brought on Jake Mulraney and Franco Ibarra. In the 65th, Ronaldo Cisneros made his club debut and entered the match for Dwyer. In the 81st, Caleb Wiley replaced Sosa.
Those substitutions lifted Atlanta's play, and the team looked more dangerous in the second 45. Wiley nearly had the equalizer in the 88th minute when he connected with a ball launched high into the air above the six-yard box. Had it gone in, it would’ve been Atlanta United’s seventh goal in the second half this season, but the 17-year-old’s header bounced just wide of the goal.
"We created very good chances, some of them we could have scored and maybe the story of the game could have been different," Pineda said.
One of the bright spots for Atlanta United on Sunday was the work of Almada. The designated player from Argentina didn’t get on the score sheet, but his skill with the ball was on full display and he combined well with teammates.
The series between the two Eastern Conference opponents is now even at 1-1. Atlanta United won the inaugural matchup 2-1 back on March 13 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.