Aggressive from the start, Atlanta United FC was able to work a late foul out of the Sounders FC to sneak off with a 1-1 draw at Lumen Field on Sunday.
The Sounders are on a seven-match unbeaten streak, which is a franchise-best start to a season. But in a match where Seattle (5-0-2) was strong defensively for nearly the entire game, the outcome had the feel of a loss.
“You fall asleep for one half of a second and that’s where you get burned,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said of the goal conceded.
Sounders defender Brad Smith fouled Brooks Lennon in the 85th minute to provide the opportunity Atlanta needed to score. United forward Josef Martinez took the penalty kick in the 86th minute, his elaborate lead-up luring Sounders keeper Stefan Cleveland to misjudge the direction of the shot.
Martinez, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opening match of 2020, collected his second goal of this season.
“We were just digesting that play on the penalty in the coach’s office,” Schmetzer said. “There are some things that we can correct and fix. The positive there is we haven’t given up a goal (this season) from the run of play. But it sure puts kind of a bad feeling in your mouth having to give up a goal after (we) put so much work into the game.”
The match opened on a jovial note.
There was a sun break that basked Lumen Field in a warm glow before kickoff. And the Sounders had a bump in attendance to 11,011 people because of two new vaccinated sections — The Brougham End, which is usually designated seating for the Emerald City Supporters, and the upper northeast portion of the approximate 60,000-seat stadium.
Although when attendance was capped at 7,000 spectators for the previous home matches, they were loud enough to hear. Sunday’s return of drums and tifo were comforting throwbacks to a traditional Sounders fan experience.
The ECS tifo read “Meant to be Together” and was unfurled before kickoff. Later the section celebrated goalkeeper Stefan Frei’s career 1,000th save with a banner that read “Sweet Stefan Frei 1,000 saves never felt so good.”
Sounders striker Raul Ruidiaz added to the excitement when he connected on a precision corner kick from teammate Joao Paulo for a score off a header in the sixth minute. The play was Ruidiaz’s sixth goal of the season and the fourth assist of the year for Joao Paulo, second in as many weeks on a set piece.
“Normally (Raul’s) movement is toward the back post, but as soon as the ball leaves JP’s feet, he corrects himself and attacks the ball and it’s a perfect, technically good executed head ball,” Schmetzer said. “(Atlanta keeper Bradley) Guzan has no chance.”
Defender Nouhou helped the Sounders open the match with unrelenting, physical play that matched Atlanta (2-1-3). The Five Stripes dominated ball possession but couldn’t find the pockets within the Rave Green defense to tuck in a score.
Atlanta looked like it was building a simple strike for Martinez in the 38th minute. But Nouhou stretched to kick the cross off its path inches outside the keeper’s box. Teammate Yeimar Gomez Andrade was able to recover from an earlier slip to boot the ball out of danger.
Another attempt for the Five Stripes — a header by Erik Lopez in the 45th minute — was saved by Cleveland dead center of the goal.
Sounders defender Xavier Arreaga also chased down a strong counter in the 65th minute. The ensuing corner kick failed.
But Atlanta’s own pressure didn’t allow Seattle any freedom to build up its offensive attack and eventually wore the home side down.
“We got pinned back and it was difficult for us to maintain a rhythm,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “You can’t defend in the low block for 90 minutes. We did some last-ditch defending. We committed guys into the defense in defending but that’s not sustainable.
“Finding ways to break the pressure, maintain possession in their half, dictate tempo a little bit more and build pressure is something we did not do. They were very effective, but those things are things that we could’ve done a lot better. You’ve got to give credit to Atlanta because they came here and did extremely well.”
MLS restricted travel amid the pandemic in 2020, the Sounders only playing two different Eastern Conference teams last year, including the MLS Cup loss to the Columbus Crew. Seattle last played Atlanta in July 2019, defeating the then-defending league champions 2-1 at Lumen Field.
The Sounders will face another new opponent next week in Austin FC, an expansion club in the Western Conference.
“It was a tough result,” Sounders midfielder Danny Leyva said. “But sometimes it’s going to be like that and you just have to bounce back.”