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The Atlanta United-F.C. Motagua preview: Concacaf Champions League kicks off Season 4

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A closer look at the matchup as Atlanta United’s 4th season begins.

MLS: MLS Cup Conference Finals-Toronto FC at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United vs. F.C. Motagua

Concacaf Champions League Round of 16, Leg 1

Tuesday, February 18, 2020, 10 p.m. ET

Estadio Olímpico Metropoliano, San Pedro Sula, Honduras

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been nearly 4 months since Atlanta United were bounced from the MLS Cup Playoffs by Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference Finals. But here we are, on the eve of the 4th (!) season of the return of top-flight soccer to Atlanta, and the team kicks off play with more questions than answers.

Gone is Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, sold to Tijuana. Gone is Julian Gressel, traded to D.C. United. Want-away Darlington Nagbe got his wish and was traded to Columbus Crew SC, now set to play in his home state and reunited with Caleb Porter, his college coach at Akron and later his coach in Portland with the Timbers. Tito Villalba—more often than not the odd man out when he wasn’t battling injury—is back home in Paruagay with Club Libertad.

To compensate for the departures, there wasn’t really a “headline” signing in the offseason, but Atlanta did dip rather heavily (and some would say belatedly) into the transfer market to add to its ranks, most notably adding Brazillian midfielder Matheus Rossetto and Liga MX defender Fernando Meza. Ex-U.S. youth international Brooks Lennon was acquired from Real Salt Lake toward the end of 2019 and weeks later was inked to a multi-year contract extension, a possible sign of the club’s confidence in his future role. Former Republic of Ireland youth international Jake Mulraney was brought in from Scottish Premiership side Hearts, while Estudiantes winger Manuel Castro was acquired on loan. Anton Walkes, part of the club’s inaugural roster as a loanee from Spurs, was inked to a permanent deal from Portsmouth. Finally, MLS vet and former USMNT defender Edgar Castillo was signed as a depth piece and potential cover for George Bello—who figured to see a more permanent role in the first-team starting XI after an injury-plagued 2019—while Adam Jahn took the departed Brandon Vazquez’s role as Josef Martinez’s backup striker.

But the questions mainly circle around whether the team is well-prepared at important spots on the field. No one is questioning how Josef Martinez, Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco will do up front. But who’s that Nagbe-esque box-to-box midfielder? You’d like for that to be Emerson Hyndman, or, possibly, Rossetto, even though Nagbe’s role was never going to fully be replicated. Who fills in on the backline should the club sustain an injury there? (This has already happened, in fact.) How will things look formationally, including on the back line and on the wings? Those are items that have been touched on at length here at DSS, but with injuries to both Bello and Miles Robinson, and several new signings unavailable for various reasons for Atlanta’s first leg of its CCL round of 16 matchup against Motagua, some immediate answers will have to basically come on the fly. And for a club who has made its ambition known, whether it can follow through on becoming the first MLS representative to win the continental competion since L.A. Galaxy in 2000 partially hinges on how it comes out of the gates in Honduras.

Home away from home

Tuesday’s match will be played at the Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano (Metropolitan Olympic Stadium) in San Pedro Sula, capacity: 37,325. Note that this isn’t Motagua’s primary stadium; it’s playing in the national stadium in the northwestern part of the country while their home ground in Tegucigalpa (Estadio Nacional) is being renovated. I should mention here that San Pedro Sula formerly held the title of the “murder capital of the world” up until a few years ago, so, naturally, it’s not really as high up on places where you’d most want to enjoy a CCL away trip as, say, Costa Rica or Mexico.

This won’t be a gimme for various reasons

Motagua enters Monday’s match having scored 18 times in its first 8 matches in the Clausura as it sits atop the table with 19 points (6-1-1). It’s split its goalscoring output in half both home and away while conceding just once at home. So if you’re expecting a comfortable victory for the Five Stripes, this should be anything but (although I think that’s the understanding among the fanbase). We know Castro, Rossetto and Mulraney (visa/travel delays) won’t play, along with Bello, Castillo and Robinson (injuries), so while it won’t be fair to call it a patchwork lineup for Atlanta United on Tuesday, it’s a lineup that will contain considerable question marks all the way up to kickoff. While some thought it was a very real possibility that a player like George Campbell would make his first-team debut in place of Robinson because the ranks are so thin, Frank de Boer basically poured water on that theory on Monday morning. But if it’s not Campbell, who is it?

Motagua are led by Roberto Moreira (6 goals) and a rather in-form Rubilio Castillo (3 straight matches with a goal). While the argument can be made that this is the toughest opponent it has faced during its season, and an opponent from a league that’s probably better top-to-bottom, I’m not confident in saying that this will be a runaway victory for Atlanta, and that’s based on both its preseason form and the formational and personnel concerns it will face.

What’s the best case scenario?

In my opinion, while Atlanta United would ideally want to take the tie back to Kennesaw with a win and an away goal or 2 in its back pocket, I don’t think many people would be too upset with a draw in Honduras. The good news is that you’ll have Mulraney and Rosseto available at home, while hopefully Castro is able to join the club and Bello and Robinson’s injury aren’t serious enough to keep them out for the 2nd leg.

I don’t think this will be the shambles of the 3-1 loss at Herediano last year. Even with everything that’s been mentioned over the past few days and weeks, Atlanta should leave Honduras in relatively good shape with a shot to truly put its opponent to the sword next week. F.C. Motagua 1-1 Atlanta United