The first match of any season will inherently be somewhat of a test run, and chances are it’s not going to be pretty.
Especially in the CONCACAF Champions League. Especially then. But for Atlanta United, the circumstances surrounding the team and the matchup were of no importance as the Five Stripes secured a 1-0 win over Alajuelense in the leg of the CCL Round of 16 and the first game of Gabriel Heinze’s tenure.
Sure, the team has a new coach in Gabriel Heinze, and sure, Atlanta’s roster looks different from last year (in a good way), but Atlanta still got the job done in the all important away leg that happened to be this team’s first ever competitive match under Heinze and with this squad.
Ezequiel Barco’s 50th-minute penalty kick made the difference at the final whistle.
No.8️⃣ with an important away goal pic.twitter.com/sGH9bJxpwM— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) April 7, 2021
The game could be described as “fitting” of the CONCACAF spirit. Over the course of that 90 minutes, we saw Brad Guzan earn a straight red card for a late tackle outside of the penalty area at the end of the first half and a very talented soccer child replace him.
Rocco Rios Novo, the 18-year-old goalkeeper and aforementioned soccer child called upon to replace Guzan in goal, signed a Short-Term Agreement the day before the first leg. The young goalkeeper played a crucial role in seeing out the win, making a club record six CONCACAF Champions League saves over the course of his first team debut.
“I just felt a lot of happiness,” Novos said via a translator. “It’s a moment that I’ll never forget.”
Just another day in CONCACAF. The stuff of dreams.
We also saw Josef Martinez make his long awaited return to the field, Santiago Sosa show his class, and so much more.
While the result itself is a nice ending to Atlanta’s first match day, the main takeaway from this match may lie outside of the score line. The point of the competition is to win it, but this match suggests that Atlanta United could have a very promising season on its hands.
Atlanta hadn't played a competitive match since 2020 and Alajuelense has been on a domestic tear, leading the Liga de Fútbol de Primera División and going undefeated in all competitions since last November. Atlanta broke that undefeated run while playing down a man for half of the away match.
The result puts Atlanta in a solid position heading into next week, and the away goal remains as important as ever. Atlanta will be without Brad Guzan, but it looks like Atlanta will still be in safe hands.
One of the most noticeable aspects about Atlanta’s setup Sosa’s positioning. Atlanta seemed intent on building out of the back, and Sosa’s positioning alongside center backs Miles Robinson and Anton Walkes helped facilitate that desire to build up play without compromising Atlanta’s defensive structure. He finished the game with 82 touches for Atlanta United, 16 more than second-place Brooks Lennon.
The MLS season won't begin until 17th, so Atlanta United can focus on recovery and preparation for the return leg in Kennesaw at Fifth Third Bank Stadium on April 13th.