Trailing 1-0 in the 81st minute, with their Audi MLS Cup Playoffs hopes on the line, Atlanta got a stunning scissor-kick golazo from Josef Martínez, who once again was acting in a super-sub role. Despite the lifeline, the Five Stripes couldn't capitalize and get a game-winner that would have kept their faint dreams alive, instead conceding a go-ahead goal to Gustavo Bou just four minutes after the leveler. The result officially eliminates Atlanta from postseason contention for the second time in three seasons.
"Really disappointing," right back Brooks Lennon said after the match. "Just devastating. This is a club that should be making the playoffs every single year, no matter what the circumstances are. I know we've had a lot of injuries this year and things not go our way, but everyone's very disappointed. I think it's unacceptable for Atlanta United not to make the playoffs."
With that, Atlanta now look ahead to an offseason with many more questions than answers.
Martínez's future with the club has been a topic of discussion for weeks now, as the ATLUTD icon has seen his minutes dwindle amid reports of his discontent behind the scenes – including a recent one-game suspension for a verbal altercation with head coach Gonzalo Pineda following a 2-1 defeat at the Portland Timbers in early September.
On Saturday, TUDN's Michele Giannone reported Martínez's agent has requested a meeting with club brass to assess his future with the club, with The Athletic's Felipe Cardenas later adding the sides are "not aligned".
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Could Martínez's distinguished tenure in Atlanta be nearing an end?
"I don't know the answer to that," Pineda told reporters in his postgame press conference. "There are many things in place with me, with many players, with the roster, with everything. The only thing I can tell you at this moment is I'm very disappointed at not making the playoffs."
When pressed on why Martínez has continued to come off the bench with the team struggling to score goals, Pineda was similarly vague.
"My decision, again," he said. "We coaches, we live and die by our decisions. We have, as you can imagine, way more information throughout the week, the season, on players. And we make decisions based on that, based on what we see day-by-day in training sessions. At times I can make great decisions, at times I cannot. So, we're talking about how good of performances we have had in the last three games and no one asked those questions. But today we lose and I can imagine people at this moment ask those questions."
What went wrong?
With focus now turning to the offseason, a campaign that began with lofty expectations, and with one of the league's most expensive rosters, will be strictly analyzed after being stuck in neutral for long stretches. The rash of injuries certainly didn't help matters, as the Five Stripes saw a seemingly endless string of key players go down, with starting goalkeeper Brad Guzan, standout center back Miles Robinson and veteran midfielder Ozzie Alonso just the start of the list.
"I hate to use excuses for anything. We have players on the field every single week that should be getting results no matter what the situation is with injuries," Lennon said. "But, yes, we did have some incredibly unique injuries this season with Brad, Miles, Ozzie, guys that are in crucial positions for our club. And, yeah, like I said, I'm not going to use excuses for the injuries that we've had this season. But, yeah, it hasn't been the best."
If there's a reason for optimism, left back Andrew Gutman said once the club finally managed some lineup consistency, their form noticeably improved. Going into Saturday's match, Atlanta were unbeaten in three, getting a 4-2 victory over Toronto FC Sept. 10 and an impressive 1-0 road victory at Orlando City SC four days later before being denied a third straight victory thanks to a brilliant Andre Blake in a scoreless draw with the Philadelphia Union.
"I think the biggest one for us is just the lack of cohesiveness within the lineup," Gutman said. "There's a lot of injuries, there's a lot of players in and out of the lineup and you saw these last few games especially, when the lineup stayed consistent, how we were able to gel and connect better. For me, the biggest thing is we weren't able to get a [consistent] starting XI and routine subs in for multiple games in a row.
"We showed this year, when everyone's healthy and when everyone's motivated and gelling to play, we're going to be one of the best teams in the league. Now, next year and even going into this offseason, we just have to keep that same mentality and put together more consistent performances."
At the moment, that will be of little solace for a club that became a dominant force in their early days, winning MLS Cup in 2018 behind an unstoppable Martínez and the brilliance of former Paraguayan Designated Player Miguel Almiron, now with Newcastle United in the English Premier League. That feels like a long time ago now, with a pivotal offseason looming as the club looks to re-establish itself among the MLS elite.