Atlanta United matches have been ugly viewing for weeks, but after Saturday’s 4-2 loss at the hands of Nashville SC, the tone of the players and head coach who spoke with media turned starkly from one of hope and optimism to one of desperation and worry.
Jeff Larentowicz, the team’s captain who took personal accountability for Atlanta’s collapse at Nissan Stadium after the game, may have painted the most ominous picture for those thinking the team has at least hit rock bottom.
“I’ve been on bad teams for sure. You have to play your way out of it,” said Larentowicz. “If you don’t, it gets worse. It compounds. Each game gets worse. You don’t want to come into training.
“Winning first balls, second balls, being on the front foot to start the game. We didn’t do it tonight. Those are the little things. Like I said, if you don’t do them, they compound and before you know it you can be buried.”
To be clear, Larentowicz, head coach Stephen Glass and left back George Bello all reserved at least one morsel of hope in the fact that there are, according to current plans, 12 more matches yet to be played this season. In other words: an opportunity. A chance to vault itself back up the table into a secure playoff position.
But none of that really mattered in the emotional moments following the most recent loss, the worst performance of the season. Instead, it was some combination of frustration intensifying into anger and urgency turning to dread.
“It’s a reality check,” said Glass. “If you don’t do the basic things well, or if clear instructions are not followed and people decide to do what they want to do rather than what the team needs them to do, then the team finds themselves in trouble.”
This particular comment from Glass, making a subtle-yet-public criticism at one or more unnamed players who “do what they want,” is the first glimpse we’ve seen at fractures that may be happening within the playing squad. Since taking over, Glass has preached a message of work rate and improvement imbued with optimism. But after his team allowed Nashville SC to nearly double its season goal tally in a single match, he relented, “I don’t pull any positives from the performance tonight.”
Another striking comment came in the first words uttered by Glass in Saturday’s postgame press conference when asked about why the team can’t seem to play on the front foot.
“I don’t think any manager in the country can legislate for the sort of mistakes we made tonight,” Glass said in a rare moment of deflection. “Defensively, off a set piece — poor. Giving the ball away — poor. Not defending crosses. A team can’t be on the front foot if you can’t pass it out of your own half. That would be the reasoning behind not being on the front foot tonight.”
Whether fans will agree with the various comments made by the team’s leaders postgame is less significant than the tone conveyed in totality — one that is, if nothing else, a far more visceral and explicit critique.
Which brings us to poor George Bello, the lone bright spot for Atlanta United not just after the match in which he scored, but over the course of Glass’ tenure in which he’s received routine playing time and proven to be one of the team’s more positively consistent players.
“We have to keep our heads up. This is a time where we can’t crumble, blame each other or go against each other,” Bello said with the innocence of the youngest child in a feuding family. “This is the time where we really need to come together and look at what we are doing wrong. We need to stay with each other through these times. Like I said, football has tough times and this is really when we need to lock in and do things together and be together as one.”
Larentowicz says the “reality check” moment, as Glass referred to it, is an opportunity for the team to go one of two ways. After talking about his experience playing on bad teams where the mood turns sour, he added:
“It’s something that this club has never done and I don’t see us doing it this year. We have to work our way out of it. We have plenty of talent, plenty of ability on the field, but we can’t allow ourselves to get to that place.”