In the first half, it felt like a goal was coming. Then, the second half delivered.
Three goals in the first seven minutes of the second half determined the final result, but Atlanta could only find the net once and lost 2-1 on the road against Montreal.
With the result, Atlanta still has 39 points in the Eastern Conference standings, just enough to keep the club above the playoff line at the moment the match ended. Montreal jumped from eighth to fourth place with the three points it earned on Saturday.
"We fought really hard and put a good performance in,” defender Brooks Lennon said. “We just didn’t get the three points, which is unfortunate.”
(Later on Saturday, Orlando City beat D.C. United 2-1, which dropped Atlanta to eighth and Montreal to fifth.)
A pair of halftime subs combined to score Atlanta’s goal. Striker Luiz Araújo, who came on for Josef Martinez, threaded a ball through a pair of Montreal defenders. The pass found the other halftime sub, midfielder Jake Mulraney, on a diagonal run and Mulraney slipped it by goalkeeper James Pantemis to put Atlanta on the board 1-0.
“I knew that there was going to be some space in behind,” Mulraney said. “I knew that when Luiz picks up that ball and dribbles inside, he’s got a great left foot. So I just made the run.”
It was Mulraney’s first goal of the season and second of his MLS career.
But within seconds, Montreal responded. Midfielder Joaquín Torres sent a ball inside the box. Striker Romell Quioto received the pass and dribbled toward the end line, creating a difficult angle for Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Quioto drove a shot toward the near post to even the score 1-1 in the 50th minute.
Atlanta defender Anton Walkes received a yellow card in the 53rd minute when he fouled Torres on a tackle inside the box. Quioto converted the penalty kick to get his brace and the win.
"If we don’t give up a ball away tonight in the game, we’re sitting here talking differently,” Lennon said after the match.
Atlanta ended the first half with two close chances. Lennon, who had a game-high five chances created, joined midfielder Ezequiel Barco to take on four Montreal defenders in a fast-paced transition in the 45th minute. Barco’s elite footwork sent the Montreal defense scrambling. The maneuver created space for a smart shot that hit the crossbar and would’ve been a spectacular goal.
Minutes later in stoppage time, midfielder Santiago Sosa nearly had his first goal of the season when he bent a strike from outside the 18-yard box that required a diving save from Pantemis.
“I feel that in the first half we created more chances than the opponent, but we couldn’t finalize those,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said.
Although Atlanta dominated possession (61%), the contest tonight felt more even than some recent performances when it outmatched opponents in shots and possessions. Both teams were able to create chances, many of Atlanta’s coming from midfield distribution and many of Montreal’s coming on the counter.
Both teams finished with double digits shots – 11 for Atlanta, 10 for Montreal.
Atlanta could’ve had even more chances if not for a lack of precision in the final third. Martínez nearly got a shot at close range in the 20th when defender Miles Robinson found him in the box, but Martinez lost the ball before he could get a foot on it.
In the 30th minute, midfielder Ronald Hernández had a chance to create something after Sosa sent him beautiful ball, but Hernández’s touch sailed straight to the goalkeeper.
“At times, we aren’t sharp enough in front of goal and missing chances,” Pineda said. “We need to be clinical.”
The play was a clear improvement from Atlanta’s last road trip, proving that the team is capable of putting on a strong performance in stadiums other than Mercedes-Benz.
Barco looked sharper than he did in Philadelphia, especially in the first half, taking players on 1-v-1 and using his speed to move the ball around the midfield.
“I felt that today the team fights and the team played up to a certain standard that is good enough,” Pineda said.
However, Montreal’s attackers moved and capitalized on a vulnerability with Atlanta’s back line: defending the counter-attack. That along with a few individual mistakes led to Atlanta losing control of the game.
"We’re going to learn from the mistakes,” Pineda said.
Whenever Atlanta’s attack stalled, Montreal was able to take the ball and force Atlanta to defend in transition. In the 14th minute, midfielder Matheus Rossetto started a rapid, promising attack. He found Barco, who then distributed the ball quickly to defender George Bello out wide. Martinez made a central run, but Bello’s cross was deflected.
A minute later, Montreal had the ball on the other end of the field. Robinson slid to block a shot from Quioto during a dangerous 1-v-1 situation.
In the 38th minute, Sosa passed a ball to Lennon who then found Barco. Barco put the ball on his feet and took a shot that required a save. Montreal answered with a dangerous chance a minute later when midfielder Djordje Mihailovic found Quioto again in a long transition, but Guzan saved Quinto’s left footed shot.
To push for the winning goal, Pineda made the change to a back line of four after Montreal went up 2-1.
“Perhaps that is where we lost a bit of the control and the balance of the team, and we were susceptible to transition,” Pineda said.
Atlanta missed two of its major attacking players for significant portions of the match. Martínez was subbed off at halftime due to some tightness he felt in his hamstring. Midfielder Marcelino Moreno did not make the trip for personal reasons.
Martínez had an early chance in the second minute when he intercepted a poor pass from Pantemis, which Sosa ended up collecting for a shot that went into the side netting. But after a record-setting night on Wednesday, the fastest player to score 100 goals for his club was unable to get no. 101 in Montreal.
“The guy’s numbers are unbelievable,” Mulraney said. “We’ve still got really talented players who can go on to turn a game on its head in one action.”
Hernández, who recently got called up to play for Venezuela in the October World Cup qualifying matches, got the start and played the first half. He was replaced by Mulraney at halftime.
After not recording a single save on Wednesday, Guzan made three tonight, including one in the 71st minute on a breakaway from Torres. Defender Franco Ibarra made his first appearance since June and came on as a sub for Walkes in the 68th minute.
“There were many positives," Pineda said. "This was a very different game where we pushed until the end. I was very proud of the effort."
Atlanta has won eight of its last 11 matches. Two of those losses have been on the road.
Three of its remaining six matches are away.
While Atlanta is not out of the playoff picture, the team has some work to do after the upcoming international break with only six matches left on the schedule.
“We have to go back to the drawing board, work hard these next two weeks, then go to Toronto and get three points,” Lennon said.