Young players need to be exposed to pressure in order to fully develop into the best players they can be. Sometimes, that pressure is in the form of playing in front of a large crowd, like yesterday’s match in front of over 1,000 fans at Pace Academy. Today, Atlanta United’s U18’s dealt with some pressure of their own making. They overcame giving up a goal in the first 20 seconds, as well as falling behind again early in the second half, to win 3-2 over a strong IMG Academy squad from Bradenton, Florida. They also learned some valuable lessons along the way.
IMG came out strong with tons of intensity, and their pressure forced a turnover in the back immediately. Atlanta United’s defense reacted slowly and gave up the opening goal in the first 20 seconds. The strong United attack responded quickly to level the scoreline. Machop Chol beat his defender wide on the left and his low cross found Patrick Okonkwo on the far post. His first time finish with his right foot easily beat the goalkeeper.
The goal only seemed to increase IMG’s fervor and they took control of large stretches of the first half. They missed a wide open chance on the back post, after a cross from the right side of Atlanta’s defense beat everyone. The three man front line for IMG caused problems for United’s backline of four, stretching them and creating opportunities for runners cutting through. It also kept Atlanta’s outside backs at home more often than Saturday’s game against Clearwater. The attack had to figure out other ways to breakdown IMG’s defense because they couldn’t create 2v1 chances out wide as often.
United started to gain more possession as the half went on, slowing the pace down a bit and playing primarily through Lagos Kunga. Chol remained dangerous out wide, consistently beating defenders out wide and creating opportunities. Kunga nearly made a goal for Okonkwo on a free kick, but the resulting chance was swatted off the line by the IMG goalkeeper.
Atlanta started the second half much better than the first, with Okonkwo nearly scoring on a 1v1 opportunity. He was denied by a sprawling goalkeeper. That missed chance proved costly a few minutes later. After a giveaway in the back, IMG took the lead for a second time in the 52nd minute. A low cross was finished by a wide open striker and Atlanta was on the back foot again.
Head coach Richard Money implored his young players to “dig deep” and get something out of the game. These types of games are why the U.S. Soccer Development Academy was created, providing high quality games that can present pressure packed situations for young players.
Cheik Fofana was brought on to help United chase the game. His energy provided a spark, and his hustle was rewarded with the tying goal in the 77th minute. His first chance was blocked, but Fofana stuck with it and found space to beat the goalkeeper to the far post.
The draw was not enough to satisfy United, and they continued chasing another goal. Kunga made a series of solo runs, but couldn’t find the opening to score. Atlanta finally earned a free kick on the left side about 30 yards from goal in the 87th minute. John Michael Bandy’s left footed cross was met by center back Bryce Washington, who out leaped his marker to head in the game winner.
IMG nearly leveled the scoreline in the 90th minute, but goalkeeper Samuel Morton made a game changing save. Anthony Diaz was a second half substitute who made an impact today as well, he brought some needed energy to a tired team late.
This will just look like any other win on the result sheet for Atlanta United’s U18 squad. However, this win taught them more than any other game so far this season. More lessons will be learned next weekend as they host the North Carolina Fusion on Saturday and Capital Area Railhawks on Sunday.