Once we get past the shock of the new — startup team playing before a sold-out audience in temporary housing — what we saw Sunday was standard-issue soccer. (Those who follow the game know this already.) Atlanta United had the lead and the better of possession. Atlanta United lost 2-1.
Tune in any week to any competition in the world — basic cable brings not just the MLS but the Premier League and the Bundesliga plus the Champions League, the Europa League, the FA Cup and World Cup qualifying to your TV/tablet/phone — and you’ll see a game just like it. A team with the lead has a chance to kill the game and whiffs. The trailing team equalizes off a set piece. The wind suddenly at its back, the no-longer trailing team scores the winner.
The match’s biggest moment came in the 67th minute. United defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez won the ball and delivered a deft pass that set midfielder Miguel Almiron free against a scattered Red Bull defense. (Down 1-nil, New York was pressing for a goal. When that happens, a defense can lose its shape.) Watching live, you wondered why Almiron didn’t feed striker Josef Martinez, running even freer to his left. Further review yielded the explanation: Had Almiron passed to Martinez, the play would have been blown dead.
(For newbies: There must be two defenders — one can be, and almost always is, the keeper — between an attacker and the goal when the ball is played to him. Otherwise it’s offside. But if the ball isn’t played to a man in an offside position and he isn’t interfering with the play, he can be deemed passively offside, meaning not offside at all. The offside rule is the most confusing part of soccer, though soccer rules aren’t nearly as bewildering as, say, those governing a catch in the NFL.)
Ergo, Almiron had to shoot. He sought to lob the ball over Luis Robles — chipping the keeper, as the argot has it — and nearly succeeded. The difference between “nearly” and “success” was the difference between winning 2-nil and losing 2-1. At full stretch, a leaping Robles caught Almiron’s shot. Four inches higher and it’s Goal No. 2 and Victory No. 1 in the nascent history of AtlUtd.
Said United left back Greg Garza: “Had Miguel gotten his chip over the keeper, it would have brought the house down.”
The Red Bulls scored twice in six minutes. The first came off a corner kick, always a potential lifeline for a trailing team. The second came when the Atlanta defense — by then starting to flag; protecting a lead is hard work — got caught at sixes and sevens and wound up seeing Anton Walkes, who’d replaced an injured Pirez only a minute before, deflect Kemar Lawrence’s pass into the net. Own goal. That, too, is soccer.
(To be fair, Walkes had to lunge for the ball. Otherwise Bradley Wright-Phillips, one of MLS’ better players, would have done the deed himself. Walkes succeeded in keeping Wright-Phillips from getting a touch, which was, alas, only half the battle.)
Six minutes later, United was down to 10 men and all but done. Carlos Carmona was red-carded for apparently — I say “apparently” because the replay isn’t quite clear — stepping on a fallen opponent. A grand night yielded a less-than-grand result. That happens, too.
But the lasting memory of Sunday night won’t be of a late lead lost. United is new and young and, as Garza noted, not nearly untalented. There will be better results. The memory will be of a city to which big-league soccer is again new acting as if this brand of football was a birthright. There can be passive offside in soccer, but this was no passive crowd. This was an audience primed for its moment.
Garza again: “I expected a lot less. The only thing I’ve heard that loud was a game with the (U.S.) national team in the Alamodome.”
Asked about the ambiance at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said: “Amazing, phenomenal, really impressive — another jewel in the crown of MLS. Their team is good. Tata Martino is a good coach. He has a clear tactical way of doing things … They’ll be good.”
I realize there are some who don’t like soccer, and that’s fine. We just saw that there are enough Atlantans who do to make this work. I’m not disposed to try to convert anyone, so I’ll leave it at this: You could not have been in attendance Sunday and left unmoved. It was a beautiful night for the beautiful game.
From Sunday night: A rousing night for Atlanta United, this city’s team of the future.