(Marietta Daily Journal)
Atlanta United, for a third straight year, took a 3-0 defeat in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinal. This time it was not against a Liga MX side on the road, but in The Benz against 2020 MLS Supporters Shield Winners Philadelphia Union. Atlanta United dominated full play for the first 45, but Union goalkeeper Andre Blake does what he does best with five saves in the half. The play was beautiful except for the finishing, which I knew would come back to haunt them. The Union finished on a corner that slipped through the first line of marking, which forced Atlanta to start pressing more upfield just to earn a tie. The Union sat behind the ball, waiting for the perfect time to break open a counter. They did this not once but twice, ending the pain for the Five Stripes. Jim Curtain overall outclassed Gabriel Heinze in tactics, but the first half left me so excited that the loss didn't hurt as bad. As I said to others, this 3-0 loss might be the easiest 3-0 loss I've watched before since there was a lot of good things to take away from the match and build from it as a team.
I didn't have a good feeling going in Saturday's MLS match on the road in Gillette Stadium with the amount of rotation seen in the starting 11. I understand that players needed rest, but I wasn't too hopeful for 3 points against an underrated New England Revolution. After Tuesday, the players seemed to lack an on-field leader as all were just going through the motions. The Revs dominated much of the first half, but Atlanta United was bailed out by Brandon Bye as he tackled Marcelino Moreno from behind in the box. Moreno converted the penalty and took a 1-1 lead heading into the break. A foul by midfielder Emerson Hyndman was called and confirmed by VAR at a very questionable spot on the edge of the box that went in the Revolution's favor. Carlos Gil finished his penalty in return as New England held off Atlanta for a 2-1 victory.
This game, for me, was a lot more frustrating. The better team won, but Atlanta's early season weaknesses continue to show: the ability to finish from open play. I think the schedule for these players has been brutal so far, and it shows when the coaching staff is able to prepare a full week for a match things look really smooth as they did in the Chicago match. Today's second leg in Philadelphia, more than likely, will be the end to their Champions League run, so it will just be MLS play for the rest of the season as the US Open Cup is currently postponed.
All MLS teams in the Champions League currently have the same problems in league play as all five clubs combine for a 2-6-5 record. I'm patient enough to think things will turn around once the players fully wrap around the tactics. I see the vision Heinze wants for them, it just doesn't process overnight. The start of this season feels exactly like the start of the 2017 season in terms of promise (minus exciting goals, but I have a feeling they will break through soon).
Injuries to both Jurgen Damm and Ezequiel Barco will keep them out of Tuesday's match and it is unknown when they'll return. Every time Barco shows any glimpse of strong form, an injury occurs. For the starting lineup, I have no idea what to expect. In fact, I have no expectations heading into the match... I just want to see some fight. Can Atlanta United pull off a miracle?