Atlanta United made the 250-mile trip north for an MLS matchup with Nashville SC on Saturday. Without leading scorer Giorgos Giakoumakis available for selection, a second-half penalty kick converted by Thiago Almada wasn't quite enough for Atlanta United to get through Nashville, and the visitors fell 3-1 at GEODIS Park.
Nashville SC opened the scoring in the 36th minute on a corner kick. The 2022 MLS MVP and MLS Golden Boot winner Hany Mukhtar sent in a quality ball that drew Atlanta United goalkeeper Clément Diop and several defenders near post. After a deflection from Nashville center back Walker Zimmerman, the kick fell to Fafà Picault open on the far post. At the goal line, and with a near empty net in front of him, Fafà tapped it in first touch to put the home team ahead 1-0.
The home side found a second goal in the 56th minute. Finding open space in transition after a throw-in in their defensive half, Mukhtar took Juanjo Purata 1v1. Mukhtar made a few stopover moves then cracked a shot inside the 18-yard box. Diop, making his second consecutive start for the club, stopped Mukhtar's shot. However, Teal Bunbury was rewarded for his big run up the field and the rebound bounced his way. The forward knocked it through to make it 2-0 Nashville.
"We came into a good game, but then [Nashville] scored a couple in transition and it just became an uphill challenge," Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda said.
Atlanta United got one back in the 72nd minute. Matheus Rossetto was tripped inside the box trying to turn after receiving a low pass from Brooks Lennon. Following a review, VAR awarded the 5-Stripes a penalty kick. Atlanta United’s Starboy stepped up and sent a slow roller with the inside of his right foot, freezing Nashville goalkeeper Joe Willis in his spot, to cut Nashville’s deficit in half and make the score 2-1.
The goal was Almada's first PK in MLS and his fifth goal of the season, tying him with Giakoumakis as the team's scoring leaders on the season.
Chasing a goal, it looked like Atlanta United might be able to find an equalizer and earn a result, but Nashville SC scored a third in second-half stoppage time to ice the match. Mukhtar carried the ball forward on a rapid attack, then the reigning MVP sent a diagonal through ball to Jacob Shaffelburg making a run. Shaffelburg did the rest of the work and slotted in a shot to secure three points for Nashville.
"Obviously not a great result today, but I thought we played well in big chunks of the game," Lennon said. We got back into the game at 2-1 after getting the penalty kick, and we were on the front foot in the second half, but [Nashville SC] just caught us on a couple set pieces."
Giakoumakis was unavailable for selection Saturday due to a hamstring injury, but Almada was in the starting XI for Pineda as was forward Machop Chol. It was the first start of the season for Chol, the 24-year-old from South Sudan. Earlier this month, he scored his first career MLS goal after coming on as a late second-half sub in Toronto. Lennon also made his 100th cap for the club, becoming the ninth player in Atlanta United history to reach the milestone.
With a healthy Andrew Gutman, Caleb Wiley moved up to left wing, which allowed some creative interplay on the left side. The two players created a nice give-and-go on the left side that led to an eventual corner kick for the visitors. The pair connected again early in the second half when Wiley backheeled a pass to Gutman who was running on, but Gutman's shot on goal was blocked by Willis.
But Nashville was the side applying the most pressure and creating better chances in the final third throughout the afternoon. The home team finished the match with 34 percent of the possession but doubled Atlanta United’s shots on goal and nearly doubled the expected goals. Nashville also had just one shot blocked compared to eight for the 5-Stripes.
"We did not connect on goal, or frame it, but I think we tried," Pineda said. "I think for certain moments we were good in our distribution and how we broke through the midfield, and then we started getting into dangerous areas. It's just that the final pass, the final extra touch in the area, and sometimes I felt that we arrived well at the area, but the delivery or the movement inside the box was not quite there, so we are lacking a little bit there."
Up next - Atlanta United visits Miami for marquee matchup
The 5-Stripes are on the road next weekend for an MLS meeting with Inter Miami CF at DRV PNK Stadium. This will mark the first time Atlanta United goes up against the club's all-time leading scorer, Josef Martínez.
Then, Atlanta United returns home for a meeting with Charlotte FC on May 13 for Rivalry Week. Following the first team match, the Atlanta United Unified Team plays against Charlotte's Unified Team at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.