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Late Atlanta goal sends D.C. United to its third straight defeat

Atlanta United celebrates the winning goal late in a 1-0 victory over D.C. United at Audi Field. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

History was minutes from being made at Audi Field on Saturday night. D.C. United and Atlanta United, in 12 previous meetings, had never finished in a draw. But as each team failed to capitalize on scoring chances, sharing the points looked inevitable.

That was until the 94th minute. Atlanta defender Brooks Lennon sent a corner kick into the center of the box, where it met midfielder Marcelino Moreno’s head, then appeared to skim multiple D.C. defenders before it slipped past Bill Hamid’s dive and found the right corner of the goal.

D.C. players could only stand in place with their hands on their heads. A short while later, a 1-0 loss — D.C.’s third straight defeat — was sealed.

“It was a very equal game. In moments, we were the dominant team, especially at the start of the first half,” D.C. Coach Hernán Losada said. “I thought the first 20 or 25 minutes were great, putting a lot of pressure, causing a lot of turnovers, creating good opportunities. But when you play against a team like Atlanta with all the qualities they have … you need to be very sharp.”

D.C. United reacquires homegrown midfielder Chris Durkin

D.C. (2-3) had its chances, earning 10 corner kicks. The club’s struggles to finish its scoring opportunities have endured since last year, when D.C. failed to qualify for the MLS playoffs for a second consecutive season.

In the 87th minute, fans rose from their seats and cheered as D.C. forward Griffin Yow set the ball for a corner kick — hoping the scenario would result in the goal D.C. needed to end the scoreless stalemate. Instead, Atlanta (3-1-1) held its line, and the ball was cleared. Soon, the Audi Field crowd erupted in boos.

Atlanta’s winner appeared to graze D.C. midfielder Russell Canouse’s jersey, and Hamid didn’t seem to see the shot until it was past him. D.C. also conceded a goal off a corner kick in its previous game against Toronto FC — a 2-1 loss at BMO Field on March 19 that preceded the international break.

“Unfortunately again, a set piece situation, like in Toronto, cost us points,” Losada said. “When you can’t win, you don’t have to lose. I’m sure they didn’t expect to win this game, but okay, it is what it is. The effort and the energy the team brought tonight in front of our fans deserves us to at least not to lose the game.”

If Losada was hoping the international break would spark his team’s offense, he was disappointed. After winning its opening two games by a combined score of 4-0, D.C. has scored just once in the subsequent three games.

“I felt like we were the better team tonight,” D.C. defender Steven Birnbaum said. “And unfortunately, we came out with zero points. We have to at least stick one in a game like that at home. So it’s obviously frustrating. It’s going to sting for a while.”

D.C. is still figuring out its lineup and has added pieces since it last played. On Saturday, midfielder Chris Durkin, who played for D.C. in 2018 and 2019, started in his first game since he returned to the club March 24.

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D.C. reacquired Durkin through the allocation process. The 22-year-old was competing with Belgian club Sint-Truiden, which acquired him on loan from D.C. in August 2019 and purchased him in May 2020 for an estimated $1.1 million. Durkin, from Hampton, Va., signed a homegrown contract with D.C. in 2016. He made his MLS regular season debut in September 2018 and played in 36 matches for D.C. before returning.

Durkin can help address D.C.’s lack of depth in the defensive midfield. D.C. parted ways with two experienced defensive midfielders, Júnior Moreno and Felipe Martins, in the offseason.

But D.C. is still awaiting offensive help. Greek forward Taxiarchis Fountas, whom D.C. acquired last month, is waiting to acquire his work visa before making his debut. Midfielder Edison Flores didn’t start Saturday and entered in the 75th minute after helping Peru qualify for the World Cup playoff. Forward Michael Estrada, meanwhile, did not play after helping Ecuador qualify for the World Cup.

Atlanta defeated D.C. twice last season in offensive showcases — eight goals were scored between the teams. Saturday didn’t feature those offensive fireworks, but Atlanta continued to come through late in games.

In its previous two matches, Atlanta found a stoppage-time winner and a stoppage-time equalizer. It outshot D.C. 14-10 on Saturday but earned only four corner kicks. But it made the most of the last of those, and it earned three points in the process.

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