The first match of the Gabriel Heinze era at Atlanta United was absolutely bonkers. The Five Stripes overcame a first half red card and a second half onslaught towards their goal — which was being protected by a teenager who was an emergency signing just for this match — to walk out of Costa Rica with a 1-0 aggregate advantage. It surely didn’t go to plan for the Argentine manager but in the end, it was a victorious debut and a very positive note to start a season that possesses a ton of potential. Here are a few thoughts on a wild affair to kick off 2021 in the Concacaf Champions League.
Clear Eyes, Full Hearts
First and foremost, the overall mentality from top to bottom must be acknowledged. The work rate all over the field was top notch. Considering this is most players’ first competitive match in about three-and-a-half months, the energy and emotion every player exuded was inspiring. We can talk about tactics and talent all we want, but a large percentage of this sport is about working hard and buying in to the collective mindset. Last season was a harsh wake-up call of what happens when everyone isn’t on the same page in that regard. This performance, while not breath-taking from a technical or tactical standpoint, should leave Atlanta United supporters proud and excited for what Gabriel Heinze has brought to the club already in such a short period of time.
Unfortunately, we only have a total of around 42 minutes of soccer to judge Gabriel Heinze’s tactical influence on the team so far. After Brad Guzan was sent off for a DOGSO offense, the gameplan was clearly and understandably thrown out the window in favor of a more practical approach while down a man. While play was fair and even we saw a daring and aggressive mindset featuring Atlanta pressing high when possible and playing a very high back line. It was in possession where you could really see the rust of a team playing its first competitive match of the season. The sloppiness of passes all over the field caused for some headaches in transition. With such a high line, Alajuelense was able to hit over the top on several occasions. While Atlanta and Guzan were able to walk the fine line pretty well for a while, there were just one too many mistakes and it resulted in the red card incident, even if it may have been debatable.
There were some encouraging signs for the system with build-up play on the wings. The highlight of the match as far as what to expect from Heinze’s Atlanta United going forward came in the 14th minute. The build-up started with Santiago Sosa as it so often does. He sprayed a ball to George Bello on the left flank while Bello found Ezequiel Barco with a lovely throughball to send him clear up the left side. Barco’s cutback pass was perfect but Lisandro Lopez was unable to get his finish on target.
This was peak Heinze. Expect to see a ton of this when we have 11 players. pic.twitter.com/mS7pnrIVhG— Rob Usry (@RobUsry) April 7, 2021
It’s plays like these that Heinze’s system thrives on. Ultra-dynamic wingplay with positional interchange and service going towards the middle. Expect to see much more build-up like this with all kinds of combinations and variations in the future.
Make no mistake about it. Josef Martinez is Atlanta United. Him going down in the first match of last season ripped the soul out of the club. Him coming onto the field in this match was a special moment. Having him back is the equivalent of signing three new Designated Players. Who knows when or if he’ll ever be back to 100 percent of pre-injury Josef, but we know he’s a massive difference maker and it’s only a matter of time before he’s banging in goals once again. Welcome back, El Rey.
We have to take a moment and appreciate the performance 18-year-old Rocco Rios Novo put on after replacing Guzan in net after the red card. The diminutive Argentine-American made several key saves and didn’t show one ounce of nerves in what was a huge moment in his young career. Who knows where his career will take him from here but he’ll always have those 50ish minutes to look back proudly on.
Trial By Fire
This clearly wasn’t the type of performance Gabriel Heinze trained his side for over the past six weeks or so. However, that’s exactly what Concacaf competition does to you. Gameplans are mostly useless when the CCL throws countless curveballs at you. The way Heinze adjusted to adversity with a practical shift in shape and his team followed along was very exciting to see. An away win in this competition against the best team in Costa Rica is quite the accomplishment. Of course we all want to see better attacking soccer in the future. But under all of the extraordinary circumstances, this result was about the best you could possibly hope for.