Atlanta United advanced to the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals with another 1-0 win over Alajuelense at Fifth Third Bank Stadium on Tuesday evening. It was a less than stellar showing for the Five Stripes in their first match on home soil in 2021, but it was enough to progress past the Round of 16 for the third time in their history. There wasn’t a ton of takeaways from a rather pedestrian affair, but here are a few thoughts:
The level of intensity for this match compared to the first leg seemed to drop significantly. The pace of play and overall urgency from Atlanta United felt more like a preseason match than a knockout round match of a confederation championship tournament. With Alajuelense unable to field many of their top players due to travel restrictions, Gabriel Heinze’s side may have taken their foot off the gas just a bit, expecting a much easier match than leg one. Then there’s also the simple truth that this group just hasn’t been together long enough to expect consistent performances. The early season rust was apparent in the first half with ordinary passes and simple touches failing miserably. While we all dreamed of Heinze arriving on a white horse and instantly transitioning this side into an attacking juggernaut, the process is going to take some time.
The Great Barco Debate Rages On
It was another up and down performance for Ezequiel Barco in this match. He had some bright moments and some not-so bright. He did get credited with an assist on the only goal of the match when his attempt to round the Alajuelense goalkeeper incidentally found its way to Jurgen Damm for a tap-in.
A tactical shift at halftime really brought Barco alive after a forgettable opening 45 minutes on the wing. Heinze decided to go more attacking and shifted Barco to the center of the field while introducing Jurgen Damm as a winger on the right side. The change unlocked a different gear for the Atlanta attack and for Barco personally. He started to take control of the match with driving runs up the middle.
Heinze mentioned after the match that he believes Barco is capable of playing both outside on the wing and in the middle of the field. We’ve seen much more of the former during the playmaker’s three-plus years in Atlanta and while the sample size is quite small so far in Heinze’s system, he’s looked much more threatening with freedom to float in the center.
The Real Thing
Whether Atlanta United is ready or not, the Orlando City match at the weekend marks the true start of the season. With all due respect to Alajuelense, there will be no valid excuses for a lackadaisical or poor performance against the Lions no matter the situation. Mistakes will be amplified as will any shortcomings in the mindset or gameplan. Orlando is shaping up to be one of the top teams in the East again this season and this opener will be a measurement of exactly where things stand under Heinze currently.