Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda has admitted the absence of Josef Martinez was "no excuse" for his side's lacklustre performance against the Philadelphia Union.
The Five Stripes fell 1-0 away from home on Saturday night thanks to a 70th-minute Kacper Przybylko strike.
But the scoreline didn't tell the whole story, with Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan being forced into eight saves as the Union totally dominated proceedings. In return, Atlanta drew just two saves out of Andre Blake, while they failed to find their passing rhythm throughout.
Despite scoring seven goals in his last eight MLS appearances, Martinez was left at home to protect his knee, with the Venezuelan still fully recovering from a long-term ACL injury. Predictably, there were some who pointed to his absence as the key to Atlanta's poor performance - something Pineda was quick to dismiss.
“I think not having Josef Martinez is not easy. He’s a top-class forward that’s important to us," Pineda told reporters after the match. "But that’s not an excuse. We have to be better even without Josef. We have to create more chances and have to get better movement with the ball. We didn’t do that today. That’s it.
"I understand the importance of this game but we need to regroup and reflect as a group on what we can do better. Then go out and try to perform on Wednesday against Miami.”
Team captain Guzan highlighted the "intensity and competitiveness" Martinez brings to the Five Stripes.
“Regardless if Josef’s here or not, we know what he brings to the team," he said. "We know his intensity, we know his competitiveness, his willingness to win and his want to win, his desire, his passion. He certainly brings that to the group."
But the United States international highlighted "sloppiness" as the key to Atlanta's poor performance, urging his teammates to step up in big games whether Martinez plays or not.
"When he’s not on the field, we need to find a way to make sure we still have that," Guzan added. "Again, you talk about guys wanting the ball at their feet, and guys pressing. I don’t even think it was a case of them pressing us in such a great way where we couldn’t get out of it.
"We’re taking a touch and a guy is taking it off our foot and then they’re running at goal. Or we take a sloppy touch and they’re winning the ball and running at goal. So for me, it wasn’t necessarily about them pressing us, it was our sloppiness and unwillingness to compete in such a huge game."
Atlanta's defeat to the Union, coupled with DC United's 4-2 win over FC Cincinnati, sees them drop down to eighth in the Eastern Conference, back below the playoff line.
Pineda's side host Inter Miami on Wednesday before travelling to CF Montreal at the weekend in another pair of key clashes in the playoff race.