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'We threw it away' - With playoffs looming, Atlanta United squanders first crack at MLS history

2:34 pm AEDT 29/10/18
Josef Martinez Atlanta United MLS 2018
A win Sunday would have been enough for the second-year club to lock up a trophy, but an uncharacteristic dud against Toronto FC served as a humbling

It was all there for the taking for Atlanta United. Sunday was a chance at a record, it was a chance at a trophy, and it was a chance to solidify a special end to a special regular season.

The 2018 campaign may still be special, trophies will someday come and records have fallen, and probably will fall, at Atlanta's hands. But Sunday night proved little more than a wasted chance for a team that has wasted so few since joining MLS.

With the Supporters' Shield and a potential league record for points in a season on the line, Atlanta United fell completely flat on Sunday. The result was a 4-1 loss to a Toronto FC team that, for the first time all season, played like a group that wasn't yet ready to concede the title of best ever.

The loss was enough to end Atlanta's Supporters' Shield hopes and bump the second-year club behind the New York Red Bulls heading into what in all likelihood will be a postseason collision of two of the most thoroughly-dominant teams in the league's recent history.

But on Sunday, history was in their grasp and, for the first time in what felt like forever, Atlanta slipped up.

“This was the most important game of the year and we didn’t play well enough,” said Tata Martino, who is entering his final days as Atlanta United manager following a recent announcement that he'll be leaving the club at the end of the season, to MLSsoccer.. “We let all the hard work that we had done until that point go to waste.

"We betrayed ourselves, threw away everything we had worked for this season," he added. "It's always a possibility that you can lose away at Toronto, the important thing is the way that we lost it today.”

That "betrayal" started early. Just nine minutes into the match, Atlanta was already up against it as Lucas Janson scored to give TFC the lead. With the Red Bulls lurking just one point behind and facing lowly Orlando City, Atlanta knew a win would likely be the only path to a Supporters' Shield.

The response wasn't there.  Marky Delgado scored in the 21st to double Toronto's lead and all but bury Atlanta's hopes while late goals from Janson and Sebastian Giovinco were just an exclamation point on what ended up feeling like an Atlanta United collapse. 

“We knew what this game meant for us, in terms of winning the shield and everything that came with it," goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. "We just didn't show up.”

“It's rough at the minute,” he added. “We didn't expect this from ourselves. There will be some conversations, tough [ones]. We need to make sure we put things right and put this behind us.”

The club can take some solace in the fact that, by and large, the loss shouldn't impact too much when it comes to the MLS Cup playoffs. Atlanta will still have home-field advantage if the club reaches the MLS Cup final and will still have a coveted first round bye. Aside from a flip-flopped home game in a two-legged clash with the Red Bulls should both sides reach the conference finals, Atlanta's path to a trophy remains largely the same.

There's also the record set by the club's striker, although that loses a bit of its luster given the result. Josef Martinez's second half penalty kick goal was the striker's 31st of the season, further adding to the record haul for the Venezuelan while sealing a nine-goal gap between Martinez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the Golden Boot. Martinez broke the single-season mark in August with his 28th, but has scored just three in the eight matches since.

Now, Atlanta heads into the postseason carrying a bit of doubt for the first time all year. From the start of the season, the club established itself as the favorite to win MLS Cup. There were mistakes along the way, sure, but from the early days the team had the look of something special.

That look is still there, despite the fact that a little bit of shine was lost on Sunday. Atlanta will host New York CIty FC, the Philadelphia Union or the Columbus Crew on Sunday to kickstart the postseason and the team's road to the final. 

To get there, they'll need better than Sunday's match, one that could prove a blessing if it humbles a team that remains one of the favorites to play into December.