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Three thoughts on Atlanta United’s 3-1 first leg Concacaf Champions League loss to Herediano

What can we take away from the first real match of the year?

Atlanta United opened their 2019 season with a 3-1 first leg loss to Herediano in the Concacaf Champions League on Thursday night. The first official match in the Frank de Boer era didn’t go quite as planned as the Costa Rican side took it to the Five Stripes and came away with a deserved two-goal advantage. With the first 90 minutes of a new look team under our belts, it’s time for some knee-jerk reactions. Here are a few thoughts on the match:

Lack of Respect Proves Costly

Okay, so, here’s the thing. Adopting a new 3-4-3 possession based style of play was always going to be difficult. Add in the worst possible conditions in which to debut the new style in competitive play and the match went about as you’d expect. You probably read all the warnings before kickoff about Concacaf being a different animal. Well the narrative is true. It doesn’t matter how much more talented your team is, when you go on the road in this region it’s incredibly difficult on even your best day. Couple that difficultly level with a team who’ve only been learning a completely new system for less than two months and it was always going to be rough.

Atlanta United have pledged to be an attacking and fun team to watch. All that is fine and dandy. However, de Boer will learn just like Tata Martino did that there needs to be a balance between all-out attack and a pragmatic approach. It took Tata a few months to realize he couldn’t press for 90 minutes away from home and live to tell about it. Perhaps de Boer’s lesson on Thursday is that even if you play a 3-4-3, bombing forward at every opportunity and leaving gaping holes in your backline on the road in Concacaf isn’t the smartest of game plans.

Then there’s the selection of George Bello. It’s great that de Boer wants to play the young guys. Bello is an extremely talented player. But, starting a kid who has one professional start to his name in those conditions again reeks of not respecting the opposition and the occasion. It was a good learning experience for the 17-year-old, but I’m not sure this was the time and place for lessons.

Poor Fitness, Even Worse Quality

We all know the caveats. Yes, it was the first real game of the season. It still needs to be pointed out that Herediano were just on another level both fitness and quality wise. Atlanta looked gassed by about the 40th minute and their play reflected that. Nearly every player in a King Peach kit looked like a deer in headlights when the ball came to their feet. Nearly the only exception on the night apart from a few moments was Darlington Nagbe, who proved why he’s so valuable to this team when coming on around the 60th minute and consistently keeping the ball and moving it.

The midfield pairing of Eric Remedi and Jeff Larentowicz were lost for the entirety of the match. Whether they were getting drug out of position by Herediano’s quick passing and great runs or committing some of the worst passing errors we’ve seen in a while, they were a non-factor.

Leandro Gonzalez Pirez once again had a shocker of a season debut. He’s making a habit of that after Houston last season. His defensive mates weren’t much better. Two poor touches when there was plenty of time to settle the ball down gifted Herediano the first goal of the game. Atrocious overall play and a comedy of errors at the back led to the embarrassing two-on-zero breakaway for the second. Poor marking on a set piece gave them the third.

It’s not fair to point fingers when it appeared that no one was on the same page or understood their roles. Frank de Boer has some work to do in the next week to tighten up that back line.

It’s Not Over

Despite the bad performance, Atlanta United still have a fighting chance at advancing. Julian Gressel’s flukey deflected away goal and a couple of big late saves by Brad Guzan made sure of that. A 2-0 result next week in Kennesaw would see Atlanta through. A 3-1 result would give us extra time. (Edit: Apparently there’s no extra time in this tournament until the Final. So it would go directly to penalties.) We know this team can score goals. What we don’t know right now is if they can prevent them from going in.

Hopefully now that the rust has been shaken off we’ll see a better performance and overall effort. If we don’t, it’ll be a very short first CCL run.