If you watched Atlanta United’s 1-1 draw against FC Motagua in the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 last Tuesday, you may have missed a little bit of history: It was the first time Atlanta had opened the season with a non-losing result. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter — the 2017 team turned out OK, the 2018 team (despite being shelled in Houston by the Dynamo) almost won the Supporters’ Shield but ended up winning MLS Cup, and the 2019 team won a pair of trophies.
One could say that 2020 had the potential to start off with a loss as well, even if it wasn’t quite in the style of the 4-1 shellacking that the Five Stripes absorbed at Herediano in last year’s Champions League opener. Atlanta United was not only banged up — George Bello and Miles Robinson were on the shelf while Brooks Lennon was carrying a knock that kept him out of the XI — but a good chunk of the club’s offseason signings couldn’t make it due to visa issues, meaning that the club had to bring in SuperDraft pick and ATL UTD 2 signee Phillip Goodrum in on a 4-day emergency loan.
From a formational standpoint, that Frank de Boer had to put together a relatively patchwork back four of Franco Escobar on the left(!), Fernando Meza and Anton Walkes as centerbacks, and Mo Adams on the right. Jeff Larentowicz, Eric Remedi and Emerson Hyndman made up a midfield 3 with the PB&J attack up front.
And it wasn’t terrible! By that, I mean it wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t a disaster either. But you do have to give Atlanta credit for not only responding to conceding against Motagua and falling behind, but doing it so quickly: after Roberto Moreira opened the scoring in the 34th, Pity Martinez was able to combine with a nice bit of play with Josef Martinez in the attacking third not even a minute later to give the Five Stripes an all-important away goal. You could argue that there were more goals in it for either side, but while Atlanta simply couldn’t take its handful of chances when they did come, Brad Guzan did his part on the other side of the field and made several big saves to keep the match level and help his side leave town with a big draw.
The other side of the bracket
The winner of this tie takes on either Mexican giant Club América or Guatemalan power Comunicaciones. Comunicaciones, very much an underdog against Las Aguilas, nearly held serve at home through an 81st minute goal through Gerardo Gordillo before Sebastián Córdova leveled it in the 90th. It would have always been a tough ask for Comunicaciones to win the 2nd leg at the Azteca even if it were to hold on for the 1-0 win, but América coming home with an away goal in its back pocket makes things that much more difficult.
Atlanta United fans, of course, need no introduction to América, who it beat 3-2 in Campeones Cup in 2019, so if it’s able to finish the job against Motagua, who knows what will happen if the two teams meet up again?
Action At the Fraction
Disclaimer: I wrote this on Sunday night with the belief that most, if not all, of Atlanta United’s players that were ineligible for selection last week would be available to play on Tuesday. However, during his pre-match press conference, de Boer told the media that Manuel Castro and Matheus Rossetto were still working out visa issues and wouldn’t play, while George Bello, Edgar Castillo and Miles Robinson would be unavailable for selection. (Bello trained; Castillo and Robinson did not). De Boer did say that Laurence Wyke would be part of Tuesday’s matchday squad; Jake Mulraney should also be able to go after missing last week.
So those bits of news throws a wrench into the plans for Tuesday. Regardless, while Fifth Third Bank Stadium is not Mercedes-Benz Stadium, it’s a venue that the Five Stripes have enjoyed themselves at during their brief history. And that shouldn’t change on Tuesday: Atlanta United should be able to punch its ticket to the CCL quarterfinals at a venue it has yet to lose at. Atlanta United 3-1 FC Motagua