Columbus, OHIO — It was a cold night in Columbus on Wednesday, and a cold night for Atlanta United in the team's opening match of the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs. Atlanta United registered just one shot, in the 64th minute, and conceded twice to drop Game 1 of the Round One Best-of-3 series to Columbus Crew 2-0.
The result means that Eastern Conference 6-seed Atlanta United is down but not out in the Round One Best-of-3 series with 3-seed Columbus. Game 2 in Atlanta next week is now a must-win for the 5-Stripes to keep their playoff hopes alive.
"Next game, we will have Thiago [Almada] back, we'll be at the Benz, we'll be strong and we have to be on the front foot," Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. "It's a life-or-death game, and we have to go all in."
Wednesday's matchup featured the two highest scoring teams in MLS during the regular season, although the first 15 minutes went by without a shot on goal for either side. The action picked up in the 19th minute when a deflected ball ended up at the feet of Darlington Nagbe, the former 5-Stripe. Nagbe cracked a shot on frame from about 25 yards out, which Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan handled calmly.
As the first 45 minutes progressed, Columbus seemed to grow more confident, possessing the ball more and creating more opportunities, while Atlanta’s chances diminished and the attack looked not quite as sharp. The home team's building play culminated in the go-ahead goal scored by Cucho Hernández in first-half stoppage time, a left-footed shot he hammered into the upper left corner. The Crew went into the halftime break with a 1-0 lead.
Cucho would go on to score the Crew's second goal of the night not long after the halftime break. Atlanta United was called for a foul inside the box, awarding a penalty kick to Columbus. Cucho converted the PK in the 51st minute to secure his brace on the night and give Columbus a 2-0 lead.
Columbus nearly went ahead by three in the 78th minute, but a couple of back-to-back saves from Guzan, including a twitchy stop with his foot, kept the scoreline as is. Atlanta's veteran goalkeeper finished the night with six saves, tying his Atlanta postseason career-high.
"We knew it was going to be a difficult game, we knew it was going to be tough," Guzan said. "It's a tough place to come. They're a good team. They're a good team that wants the ball. They're good on the ball. All of those things combined, we were okay until the goal."
Atlanta United was without the club's single-season assist leader and one of the team's most creative playmakers for Game 1 in the Round One Best-of-3 series. Thiago Almada was serving a suspension for a red card issued during the Decision Day match against FC Cincinnati and was unavailable Wednesday. The suspension is for one match, which means the midfielder will be available for the next meeting in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
"Thiago's a big piece of our team, he's a big piece on the attacking side, but we need to look back at this game and try as a group, including Thiago, [and look at] how do we make sure we're firing on all cylinders," Guzan said.
With Almada out, Pineda's starting XI had some tweaks. Homegrown Jay Fortune made the starting XI for just the fourth time this year. Brooks Lennon and Ronald Hernández also made the starting lineup, giving the team a backline with five defenders.
Playing from behind in the second half, Pineda made several late substitutions to help spur Atlanta's attack. Saba Lobjanidze, who came on at the half for Tristan Muyumba, Edwin Mosquera and Jamal Thiaré were among some of the replacements.
"When you review, I think we're going to see a lot of very good individual performances," Pineda said. "It's just the timing of certain movements in the final third that we need to do better."
Shots on target
Up next — Round One Best-of-3 series comes to Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Atlanta United's run in the MLS Cup Playoffs continues next week as the series heads to Atlanta. The 5-Stripes host Game 2 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Tuesday, Nov. 7.
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