You have to hand it to Club América. It takes some serious hubris to give yourselves a name and a logo that suggest you represent an entire continent. But you’d better live up to it.
Most of the time, they do, of course. Holders of too many Liga MX records to count, and 7-time winners of the CONCACAF Champions League and its predecessors, they came to the Benz as favorites and with the largest visiting support the stadium has yet seen (well, except when Alabama plays there, of course). It’s hard to know what they were expecting, given that this contest would set them up against an MLS team in mid-season form (which in CCL they usually don’t face) and also has recently regained a swagger not dissimilar from their own.
Well, they found themselves in a heavyweight match.
And what a match. We’ve seen many entertaining Atlanta United games over two and a half seasons, but this one, which was in reality a glorified friendly, ranks up there with the best of them, if it’s not right at the top. The game had everything:
- An early Atlanta United goal
- A quick comeback
- Miguel Herrera getting a warning…handshake?
- A penalty kick awarded by VAR
- The referee copping out of a second VAR on the penalty kick for a clear goalkeeper violation
- A hamstring injury on the Benz turf
- Miguel Herrera’s head nearly exploding due to massive blood pressure
- Jeff Larentowicz scoring a golazo
- J. Sam Jones’ head actually exploding
- Josef Martinez bogarting a second penalty kick away from Pity Martinez
- Two lead changes
- Miguel Herrera getting a yellow card
- A Club America assistant coach getting a yellow card
- Leandro Gonzalez Pirez not getting a yellow card
- A double-yellow red card
- Darlington Nagbe teaching defenders how to dance
- The winners’ nameplate stuck on to the trophy with masking tape
- And, lastly, the most repetetive of Mercedes-Benz Stadium events: a Campeones Cup attendance record
In a complete turnaround from last year’s inaugural edition between UANL Tigres (whom Club América had to beat in the “Campeón de Campeones” game a month earlier in Carson, CA to get here) and Toronto FC, a rather lackluster affair that ended in a predictable 3-1 Tigres win, Wednesday’s game more than lived up to the hype and must have pleased MLS and Liga MX execs immensely.
I’m guessing that Pity Martinez doesn’t know who Joe Namath is, but he did a pretty good impersonation of him on Monday with his almost-but-not-quite-guarantee of a win. That was probably the first signal that this game was being taken seriously, and the teams did not disappoint. Herrera announced a team as near as possible to a first XI as possible, Memo Ochoa and Gio dos Santos not being with the squad long enough yet, and de Boer made 5 changes to his lineup, probably as few as he dared in the middle of such a full schedule. The result was that the on-field product was every inch a championship game.
The Is-it-possible-to-have-just-one? Stripes played with the mix of tough defense and brash attack that looks to have become the team’s dominant style over the past few games. Atlanta came out with their eyes immediately on goal. That probably took América off guard, finals usually starting out as relatively cagey affairs. It led to a goal just 5 minutes in featuring two of United’s youngest players. 8 minutes later América equalized and the game was truly on.
In the end, Atlanta dominated. They held 57.9% possession throughout the game, and outshot América 17-15. A full 10 of those shots were on goal. And you won’t believe who Atlanta’s second-highest shooter was. Passing was heavily attacked-oriented too: 64.6% in the attacking half and 33.0% in the final third. Overall accuracy was 78%, about average for United.
So we have the first trophy of the Frank de Boer era, and it is clearer than ever that he takes silverware seriously. And there’s another one up for grabs in less than two weeks. For now, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is Darlington Nagbe, whose management of midfield and ownership of his opponents was just glorious. Special Mentions to Josef Martinez, Jeff Larentowicz and Emerson Hyndman for their scoring contributions.
NOTE: Individual statistics available for this game are thin, so the comments below will be rather lacking in supporting detail than is normal.
GK: Alec Kann – 7. Resting Brad Guzan was probably FdB’s riskiest move. Alec Kann had no first team minutes this season before Wednesday, and showed why he is only the backup. His hands are nowhere near as secure as Brad’s, and one of the two goals was his fault. Still, he had 4 saves in the game, and covered 2 incoming crosses.
CB: Florentin Pogba – 7. Brogba was simply too big for the América attackers to handle, and was the same for their defenders, who stupidly brought the centerback down in their own box. In addition to drawing a PK, he also had an off-target shot.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 7. LGP took the second-most shots on the team: 3 of them, with 2 on frame. That 2 centerbacks were able to get so high speaks to the confidence Atlanta played with in this game.
CB: Franco Escobar – 6. Surprised almost everyone by getting yanked after 44 minutes, but it turns out he fell victim to the MBS hammy curse. Not sure how long he played gimpy, but he didn’t really do much in his time on the field.
LWB: Emerson Hyndman – 8. A very nice strike for his first Atlanta goal, with what turned out to be his only shot of the game. Still, it was an early warning that Julian Gressel is not Atlanta’s only wide threat.
LM Jeff Larentowicz – 8. This.
RM: Darlington Nagbe – 9. Running 720s around defenders? That’ was just rude. Actually, no it wasn’t. It was hysterically funny. This is Darlington’s midfield, and no one else can have it. Even took a shot. He skyed it, of course.
RWB: Julian Gressel – 7. Repeating his herculean efforts of last Sunday was a tall order, and he didn’t quite get there. Just 1 shot, off target.
FWD: Pity Martinez – 8. Pity fed Dion Pereira to set up the first goal, and drew the first PK. Which Josef subsequently flubbed badly. He’s going to have to hire some top-notch private detectives, because some serious dirt on Josef is the only way he’s ever going to take a PK for Atlanta. 2 shots, 1 on goal. Pulled in second half stoppage time for Barco, which was a pretty trollish substitution on FdB’s part.
FWD: Dion Pereira – 7. His chipped pass to Emerson for the goal was as cheeky as it was beautiful. 1 off-target shot.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 9. 5 shots, and all of them were on target. Josef has now scored in 12 straight games in all competitions. Is the hop now gone forever?
SUB: Miles Robinson – 7. Showed up expecting a rest, didn’t get one. May have been responsible at least in part for one goal, but was otherwise effective.
SUB: Justin Meram – 6. For once Justin looked a bit out of sorts. He was unable to boss the América backs the way he does in MLS.
SUB: Ezequiel Barco – 6. Had a late chance to score on an open goal, but couldn’t finish.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 8. Had the best game and the best result of his brief Atlanta career. Maybe he should say something dumb to the press every week?
SOCK SPONSORS – 0. If you’re going to insist on adding sponsors to your socks (NASCAR is missing an opportunity here, methinks), at least choose one whose name actually fits.