It wasn't pretty, but they got the job done.
Atlanta United returned home with a 1-0 lead in the first round of CONCACAF Champions League. All they needed to do to move on was to earn a draw. But in our history with the home leg in CCL, which entailed a 4-0-0 record with 4-0 and 3-0 wins over Herediano and Motagua, expectations were to do the same. Especially with Alajuelense missing several key starters, I thought the guns would fire early and allow us to rest before the MLS opener Saturday.
The early play felt like this was going to be the case as Atlanta controlled much of the possession. Alajuelense tactically parked the bus, allowing almost nothing dangerous near the box. This carried through the opening 15 minutes, giving the depleted away side confidence to start pressing forward. A scary touch by Alonso Martinez in the 33rd minute over George Bello forced 18-year old goalkeeper (the savior of the first leg) Rocco Rios Novo off his line to push the ball away, but not enough as Martinez recovered and then missed far wide right. There's not much to add to this, it was a Frank de Boer felt half with 71% possession but no creative play in the final third to back it up.
The second half opened up as both sides found more opportunities. A shot by Marcelino Moreno was saved out in the 53rd minute, followed with a header from Santiago Sosa off the crossbar. Onto the 81st minute, LDA substitute Aaron Suarez played a funky ball that trickled through the backline, where Rios Novo barely touched his left foot to clear it. Alajuelense, on their last life, were put to rest on an Ezequiel Barco breakaway in stoppage time, where his strong touch by the goalkeeper produced an empty goal for Jurgen Damm to bury it. Atlanta won the match 1-0, moving onto the quarterfinals with consecutive clean sheets.
Rocco Rios Novo did everything he needed to in his first career professional start. His distribution off goal kicks were noticeably solid. The back line of Bello, Brooks Lennon, Miles Robinson, and Anton Walkes was again sound enough for the win. I still think too few individual duels are not going in their favor and they just have not been punished for it yet, but a clean sheet was still earned. Sosa continued to dominate the midfield, while Hyndman quietly was very smooth in both his passing and his defensive assignment. Ibarra was very invisible in the first half, which was the only half he saw on the pitch. Moreno looked a little timid in the start, but began to find himself more when he was moved from the right flank to the left. Barco also seemed a lot more lively with his halftime positional change, as he went from zero chances created as a left winger to four chances created as an attacking mid. I would love to see Moreno on the left and Barco more centrally moving forward. Captain Josef Martinez made his first start since the knee injury and looked very.... uncomfortable. Alajuelense shadowed him closely and his touches were minimal in his 65 minutes of play. Attacking opportunities were more effective when Lisandro Lopez subbed on for him. For all he's done for us, we just need to be patient with him. It's still awesome to see him back out there.
Fifth Third Bank Stadium will always have a special place in my heart. Atlanta United will face MLS's 2020 Supporter Shield Winner Philadelphia Union in the quarterfinals. Until then, Saturday will kick off the beginning of the league campaign. Look out for Gary's postgame takes following this recap.
My CCL Fever continues for at least another three weeks.
(Hyosub Shin, AJC)