“It felt like last year,” midfielder Russell Canouse said. “It felt like guys turned it up at the right time. Everyone was motivated. It was just fun to be back out on the home field and playing our style of play.”
Argentine ringleader Luciano Acosta extinguished any concerns that his failed move to Paris Saint-Germain in the offseason would adversely affect his mind-set. He assisted on Paul Arriola’s opening goal and scored in the 58th minute when Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan misplayed his 25-yard shot, helping D.C. stretch its regular season unbeaten streak to 11 before an announced crowd of 16,942.
“The first big test,” Acosta said through an interpreter, “we passed.”
Acosta received an abundance of support. He reengaged with Wayne Rooney and struck a rhythm with new left wing Lucas Rodriguez, another Argentine import. Arriola raided the right side, and the defense blanketed MLS’s top-scoring team last season in front of goalkeeper Bill Hamid.
“We picked up — fortunately — a little bit where we left off,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “And I wasn’t sure, to be honest, because the preseason was a little choppy.”
Eight days after a three-goal defeat to Montreal in its last tuneup, D.C. generated many chances and lacked only a finishing touch to remain perfect at home in four all-time meetings with Atlanta.
“We said when the fixtures were out,” Rooney said, “Atlanta is a great opportunity to not only start the season well but [make] a mark to the other teams watching.”
Atlanta Coach Frank de Boer held just two first-choice starters out of the lineup despite playing three days after a Concacaf Champions League victory and three days ahead of a game in Mexico.
Newcomer Gonzalo Martinez, the 2018 South America player of the year, did not enter until the 59th minute, but for the most part, Atlanta was close to full strength.
Nonetheless, Olsen said the result should be taken with a “little grain of salt with the schedule they had. Maybe we didn’t get their best punch, but in this league, you have to take advantage of those days.”
D.C. set the tone and did not grow complacent until the last 20 minutes, when Atlanta threatened.
Just when it seemed D.C. would head to halftime with nothing to show for its promising efforts, Rooney, Acosta and Arriola collaborated on the game’s first goal.
On the team’s seventh corner kick of the half, Rooney served to Acosta, who beat Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst to the ball. Acosta touched it ahead to Arriola, who sneaked behind the last defender and used a one-time smash from the doorstep. Immediately after the restart, referee Jair Marrufo sounded the halftime whistle.
D.C. kept its grip on the match in the second half and extended its lead on Guzan’s howler. From distance, Acosta drove the ball on target. Guzan did not need to move much to make the save but, after leaning to his right, was left flat-footed for an animated shot that skipped off the slick grass and flew past him.
“I knew it was slippery and wet,” Acosta said. “We tested him a few times before, and he hadn’t grabbed the ball, and it always rebounded.”
For Acosta, who raised his game after Rooney’s arrival last summer, the season’s first competitive showcase allowed him to put the PSG saga behind.
“When the Paris offer came and I went, I was still a player with this club. I was always a player with this club,” he said. “When it didn’t go through, I tried to be as mature as possible and responsible as possible to give everything for this club it deserves.”
Rooney, said that, for as long as Acosta is wearing black and red, he expects to see the same player who dazzled last year.
“He knows he has to keep performing well,” Rooney said. “If he is going to get a move to a big club in Europe, he has to perform. It’s as simple as that. We all want him to stay, come end of the year, but we understand if a move happens. For now, we’re delighted he’s here.”
Notes: D.C. is aiming to arrange three international friendlies at Audi Field: Spanish club Real Betis on May 22, a team from another major European league in July and a Latin American opponent in September. . . .
VIPs attending the opener included MLS Commissioner Don Garber; Atlanta United chief investor Arthur Blank, who also owns the NFL’s Falcons; and Earnie Stewart, general manager of the men’s national team.