This was always going to be a tough one. Even with a full squad, going to Central America to play your first game of the season is never a pleasant prospect. We found that out last year in Costa Rica.
This time, Frank de Boer was prepared. Or at least, he had thought he was. A moderately extended preseason, including training in Florida humidity and more training and a game at altitude in Guadalajara, as well as having the chance to select players to fit his preferred game plan, should have had Atlanta United ready to go.
Then the problems started to pile up. Miles Robinson gets hurt. George Bello gets hurt. Edgar Castillo gets hurt. Matheus Rossetto had to go home to deal with visa issues. Ditto for Jake Mulraney. Manuel Castro can’t even get out of Uruguay (or Argentina, or wherever he is stuck right now). If that’s not bad enough, Brooks Lennon picks up a knock in training right before the game and Josef Martinez is recovering from a fever. Even signing Phillip Goodrum to a 4-day contract only got Atlanta to 17 players.
Thus, the conditions were right for the Stripes to get royally CONCACAF’d. And I haven’t even mentioned the Mexican referee yet.
And so FdB went to Honduras a desperate man, but he didn’t hide. He did have to do some serious head-scratching though. The lineup he sent out was held together with string and duct tape and probably more than a little prayer. It wasn’t the 3-4-3 that he clearly wishes to use this season. Instead it was a 4-3-3. That much probably didn’t surprise anyone. But the way he ordered his back line was a risky choice. He doesn’t strike me as much of a gambling man, but this time it paid off.
No, he didn’t hit the jackpot, but returning home from Honduras without losing is good news. Better, he came away with an away goal in his pocket, and that counts as a successful night at the tables.
So, he shunted Franco Escobar to left back. Transfermarkt.com has him playing that position 4 times last year, although checking the lineups for those games indicates that is not the case. As far as I can tell, he has never played on the left previously. FdB was pushing the total football concept a bit with that choice.
It worked out, though. With him and the veteran Fernando Meza inside, the left side of the back line ended up looking pretty solid. The right side, manned by Mo Adams and Anton Walkes, was relatively underpowered.
For the first 30 minutes of the game (which were pretty boring, to be honest) that did not appear to be too much of a problem. Atlanta managed a surprisingly high 64.5% possession during that stretch, and allowed just one off-target shot. But then, right at the 33-minute mark, Adams lost track of his man, Roberto Aldana, and Motagua took the easy lead.
Which thankfully lasted just 109 seconds, thanks to Josef Martinez doing Josef Martinez things despite his illness. With a generous assist from Pity Martinez, of course.
Then for the remainder of the first half it went back to being mostly boring again, but frankly, that was a good thing. Neither team took another shot before half time, combining for just 5 in the first stanza.
The second half was a bit more fun. Atlanta gave up the possession advantage, holding the ball for just 50.2% of the half (and ending the game with 54.6%), but played in a more advanced position. The result was 18 shots in the half (8 for Atlanta, 10 for Motagua) and 8 good saves from both goalkeepers.
The defensive game plan appears to have been to force Motagua out wide. In total, they attempted 30 crosses. Of those, only 8 made it into the penalty area, including the assist from Félix Crisanto on Aldana’s goal.
Atlanta, in contrast, attempted just 9 crosses, preferring to play up the middle. Which is how the equalizer was achieved. Here’s the heatmap as modeled by CONCACAF:
Atlanta is on the right. Follow the link if you would like to see how the game changed between the two halves.
Overall, the game was pretty even and the ultimate result a fair one, but leaves Atlanta with the advantage going into the home leg at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw.
The unanswerable question is: how would the back line have looked if Miles Robinson had been available to play? Would FdB have gone with 3 or 4? My guess is a 3-man line would probably have been Meza-Robinson-Escobar. Anton Walkes has played at left back before, so he would probably have been added in that slot to those three in a 4-man line. And that would mean that Miles would have been covering Aldana. No disrespect to Mo Adams, but Miles has far greater recovery speed and cutting off threats in that exact position were his bread and butter last year.
Looking ahead, there is much to be happy with. Most importantly, the team looked very cohesive under difficult circumstances. They controlled the game for the most part, and were threatening both from playing out of the back and on the counter. Up to full strength this is going to be a very competitive side.
With that in mind, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is Brad Guzan, who is already earning that multi-year extension. Special Mentions go to Franco Escobar, who was impressive despite playing completely out of position, and to Josef Martinez, for being the man.
GK: Brad Guzan – 8. 5 saves in the game, at least 3 of which were great. He even got his paw on the goal. A veteran performance if there ever was one.
LB: Franco Escobar – 6.5. Franco marred what was otherwise a very good showing out of position with a silly yellow card for dissent. 4 interceptions, 2 clearances and 11 recoveries.
CB: Fernando Meza – 7. Wow. Our left center back didn’t get a card. Generally, he was a calming presence and held play up well. 1 block, 4 clearances and 4 recoveries. As noted above, Motagua were forced to play wide, and mostly on their left.
CB: Anton Walkes – 6. Welcome back, Anton. Like Escobar, he was not in his preferred position (right back), but also played fairly well. 1 tackle, 5 clearances and 2 recoveries. He also managed 2 shots, both inside the 18.
RB: Mo Adams – 5. Mo was always going to be the weak link on the back line. Pulled after 65 minutes. 1 tackle, 1 interception, 1 clearance and 5 recoveries.
LM: Jeff Larentowicz – 6. As ever, a very solid performance from the wily veteran, including a wild shot from distance. Jeff is looking at climbing the record books this year. He is currently 4th among field players in MLS games played at 391. 11 games this season will take him to 2nd. 1st is likely out of reach: the still active Kyle Beckerman is on 463. He is also 4th in games started at 371. 16 starts gets him to 2nd. Lastly, he is 4th in minutes played with 33,013 and needs 2,111 to get to 2nd.
CM: Emerson Hyndman – 6. Playing in the Darlington Nagbe role, Emerson needs to step it up a bit. 40 passes for 82.5% accuracy.
RM: Eric Remedi – 7. A very creditable game from Eric. Tasked with being the more advanced half of an effective double pivot with Jeff, he was difficult to get around. He also got in 2 shots, 1 on target.
LAM: Ezequiel Barco – 7. Zeke looked good, and playing up the middle worked to one of his strengths, namely, forcing the ball inside. As usual, he was a foul magnet, drawing 5 to lead all players on the game. 2 shots, but both were off frame.
RAM: Pity Martinez – 7. Pity is looking like the player we thought we got last year. 2 shots, both on target, and the assist on Josef’s goal. He was fast, and completely in control of his opposition. Give a well-earned rest after 81 minutes.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 7.5. Even a sub-optimal Josef Martinez is a very good Josef Martinez. The goal was vintage Josef, of course, and he came close on several other occasions. At full fitness he likely would have had a hat-trick.
SUB: Brooks Lennon – 6. Replaced Mo Adams, but didn’t really do very much in his 35 official minutes. Just 1 tackle, in fact.
SUB: Adam Jahn – 6. OK, Jahn looked way better than I expected. He could well be a good late supersub when a big forward is needed.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 8. Deze man is erg soepel. Did the best with what he had.
WALKER ZIMMERMAN – 10. You have our full permission to laugh insanely while strumming those guitar riffs.