ATLANTA — D.C. United was reduced to a bit player Sunday, by the high-charged opponent, by the breathtaking venue and by the record crowd.
In the moments after Atlanta United’s 3-1 victory at sold-out Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the words chosen by D.C. Coach Ben Olsen and his players included “wonderful,” “special,” “amazing” and “awesome.”
They applied to any number of subjects, but certainly not to the visitors, who were swamped in the first half, began to find their way after intermission, then surrendered two goals in rapid succession in the late stages in falling to 0-1-1 at the start of an imposing schedule.
Announced attendance was 72,035, smashing the MLS record set here last fall after the team spent most of its inaugural season at Georgia Tech. Capacity is typically 42,500 for league matches, but for the home opener and a few others, the Falcons-owned organization will open the upper deck.
The home side did not disappoint.
Josef Martinez scored midway through the first half and Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba struck later as Atlanta rebounded from a 4-0 defeat at Houston last weekend and began to avenge three defeats in three meetings with D.C. in 2017.
Darren Mattocks answered in the 86th minute, but D.C.’s outlook had faded during a one-sided first half and an improved but unfulfilled start to the second half.
“We’re a good team. I really like the makeup of our team,” Olsen said. “I think we’ll respond. We understand this is a long first half of the year [with 12 of 14 on the road]. We’re not going to get a result in every road venue. This is a tough one.”
It’s tough because of Atlanta’s large, deafening crowd and the artificial turf but mostly because of a menacing attack that finished second in the league in scoring last year and rebooted over the winter.
D.C. was chasing the game from the start. An Atlanta goal seemed certain on three occasions, but David Ousted made a pair of quality saves and Julian Gressel squandered a good look.
Atlanta worked the angles and channels to create opportunity, raising the volume of the roofed arena. The breakthrough came in the 24th minute on a swift foray.
Villalba and Darlington Nagbe played a combination on the right side. Villalba left Ulises Segura and Junior Moreno in his wake.
With Oniel Fisher caught up field, center back Steve Birnbaum had to contest the fast-charging attacker. Villalba drove a cross between his legs and behind Frederic Brillant. Jetting between Brillant and Nick DeLeon, Martinez met the pinpoint pass in stride and scored with a sliding finish from five yards.
D.C. was much more stable after halftime, keeping it simple in stringing together passes. There was not any menace in the final third of the field, however.
“Not good,” Mattocks said in assessing the performance. “We’ve got to do a better job trying to play. We’ve got to figure something out because, for the last two games, we’ve pretty much sat back.”
Added Brillant: “We have to find a good solution. We have the ball but we don’t go forward.”
Mattocks had a chance to tie it, but after forcing a giveaway and toying with defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, he fired off-target.
Luciano Acosta, who had missed the opener on a red-card suspension from the 2017 finale, brought energy, technique and possession but no serious threats.
And before long, Atlanta put the outcome to rest.
In the 73rd minute, Moreno settled in too deep, allowing space for Almiron to fire an 18-yarder into the top left corner. Two minutes later, Villalba’s eight-yard glancing header off Almiron’s cross beat Ousted to the back side.
“Almiron is one of the best I’ve ever seen in this league,” Olsen said. “They’re a good team, but he’s special. And he is nasty and makes them tick.”
D.C. got one back when a pass by Yamil Asad, who starred for Atlanta last year, deflected into Mattocks’s path for a one-timer past Brad Guzan.
The goal quieted the crowd for a moment, and after some minor scares, the party was on.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, starting back with Columbus,” Olsen said of visiting new MLS venues as a player and coach. “I was in awe then. And now to see from there to this city [stadium] that they’ve built, the amount of people they packed in here, the noise, it’s exciting to be a part of.”