(Atlanta United Twitter)
The 17s wanted to watch fun soccer again? Ask and you shall receive...
I don't think anyone knew what to expect heading into this match. For a team with a new manager, three new signings into a starting lineup that combined of an average age of 25 (take Guzan and Lopez out it's 22) with only one of their three designated players in it, facing a side that hasn't conceded any of their last 26 matches, what should you expect?
From the opening whistle you could see a team hungry to play the ball quick through the midfield. At times they were sloppy, but that's expected after not playing for a few months. Atlanta United controlled the majority of the first half. A sequence I can't stop thinking about is posted below, when Santiago Sosa picked out a curling ball to George Bello, who next found Ezequiel Barco on a backdoor cut to goal. This is what I can get behind all the time.
The game's momentum shifted when Barco dropped the ball back to an Alajuelense striker that soon found himself on a 2-on-1 break toward goal. This forced goalkeeper Brad Guzan to sacrifice himself, forcing a free kick outside the box and an eventual red card. Queue in 18-year old Rocco Rios Novo, who was loaned to Atlanta United 2 from Atletico Lanus for 2021. With Alec Kann still recovering from offseason surgery and Ben Lundergaard not selected, Rocco was signed to a 4-day first team contract, which later known to make an unexpected debut in a highly-pressured situation.
In the 48th minute, Bello crossed a ball into the box that was deflected out of bounds for a corner, only for the referee to determine the deflection came from the Alajuelense defender's arm and called for the penalty spot. Barco finished on this opportunity, allowing Atlanta to modify their tactics for the remaining 40 minutes. It wasn't easy, but the guys weren't phased from this challenge. Rios Novo ended up with 6 saves, several of them being from within 15 yards. Both Miles Robinson and Anton Walkes made timely tackles in the box, while Bello and Brooks Lennon worked their tails off on the outside. Sosa is a just baller, there's nothing I can really add to that. I'm all against overreacting off one performance, but there's a reason why he's here. He will be the glue moving forward, and just wait until he can connect with Marcelino and Josef on the counter. Solid shifts from Ibarra and Hyndman in the midfield, Mulraney showed an improved amount of pace but was the casualty substitution of the red card. Licha Lopez is a leader and did a good job connecting the midfield into the attacking third. Barco, while still careless with the ball, finished when he needed to and put in a solid 90 minutes both tracking back to defend and dribbling to waste time in the end. It was also good to see homegrown center back George Campbell get some time in the last few minutes.
Last, but certainly not least, the return of El Rey. In the 67th minute, Josef Martinez made his first appearance on the pitch in 402 days. This was an amazing moment to see him out there, but also reminded me to remember his recovery is still a process and will have to lessen expectations in the first few weeks of the season.
Atlanta United returns with a 1-0 advantage. Although without Guzan, Rios Novo seems ready for the task again next week. Marcelino Moreno also looks to make his season debut after sitting out for his red card suspension that carried over from last season. As of now, LD Alajuelense will not have several key starters with them on the return leg as Alex Lopez, Alonso Martinez, and Carlos Mora do not have the necessary visas to travel into the United States, while striker Marcel Hernandez awaits a pending court appeal in Costa Rica.
(Atlanta United Twitter)
So, given the situation, are you shocked by this result? Gabriel Heinze doesn't seem to be, as he stated postgame, "I'm not surprised at all. I think our players fought to the end of the game and it's not a surprise for us."
I noted in my match preview that all I wanted was to leave Costa Rica with a draw and finish them off in Kennesaw. Although it wasn't pretty, the Five Stripes indeed exceeded my expectations in Tuesday night's fixture. But as they always say... job's not finished.