For the second straight week, Atlanta United 2 hit the road in search of their first points of the 2021 season. This version of the team came loaded with MLS talent in need of valuable minutes and with plenty to prove to Gabriel Heinze. Like the prior week, Heinze offered his substitutes a clear choice, to travel with the 2s for a chance to play and potentially earn a place in the MLS rotation or to travel to Foxborough with only an outside chance of seeing the field. This week, seven players accepted the call, creating a vastly different lineup for 2s coach Tony Annan. When asked after the match about the influx of first-team players for his squad, Annan mused:
“It’s a tough thing when you have First-Teamers drop into your team that you haven’t trained with and you haven’t been with. For them to come down and give the effort that they gave, and the professionalism they played with and the passion they played with, it is really encouraging. Sometimes it is difficult for a First Teamer to come down and be motivated to play, but I think all of the guys from the First Team came with a great attitude, great passion for the game and helped get the team its first win of the season.”
This is a strong lineup. Despite the lack of in-game chemistry for this team as a unit, they looked solid for most of the first half. With Jackson Conway on the bench with the first team and with Mackey Diop unavailable, Philip Goodrum slotted into the center forward spot with last week’s fullbacks flanking him as the wingers. Bradley Kamdem Fewo is predominantly a defender playing mostly at the left-back and left center-back positions. McFadden returned to a more natural position for him as he primarily played as a forward or as an advanced midfielder in college. Tyler Wolff returned to the pitch as the attacking side of a midfield double pivot with Matheus Rossetto, and Chris Allan shifted into the deep-lying #6 role to form a 3-man backline with central defenders Alex De John and George Campbell when in possession. This marked the first competitive action of 2021 for fullbacks Mikey Ambrose and Ronald Hernandez who rounded out a defensive unit that is probably one of the best in the USL - Championship. In goal, CONCACAF Champions League breakout wunderkind Rocco Rios Novo gets his first start for the 2s and looked to continue his impressive audition for Atlanta United.
The match started aggressively with Atlanta United and OKC Energy both attempting to dictate the tempo. Atlanta United burst out with a fast and overwhelming pace and tenacity while the home side preferred a slower and more methodical pace in possession. In the opening minutes, Atlanta’s fullbacks and wingers blazed up and down the flanks, daring OKC’s defense to step up into an offsides trap. These blitzes came through direct balls up the flanks and beautiful cross-field diagonals with fullbacks flipping the field with probing balls to the opposite field winger. Remarkably, Kamdem looked right at home on the left-wing and reigned in quite a few of these long lobs from Hernandez to get deep in OKC territory.
Overall, the first half was a dominating but fruitless 45 minutes for Atlanta United as commanding defensive play from De John and Campbell, dynamic and decisive midfield play from Tyler Wolff, encouraging signs from Rossetto, and lung-busting runs from the wings failed to create a goal or even create solid opportunities on goal until the 41st minute. The 2s got their first and best opportunity of the half when Goodrum whipped a cross in to a streaking McFadden at the back post but a towering challenge from OKC goalkeeper CJ Cochran forced McFadden to sky his shot. So the first half came to a close with no score.
Annan opened the second half with a trio of academy players coming on for three reserves. Will Reilly came on for Tyler Wolff to get his first USL minutes of the year, Brendan Lambe replaced Rossetto, and Coleman Gannon replaced Hernandez and slid McFadden back to right-back. While this tactical shift brought a lot of young experience and dynamism into a match that needed a spark, it also made sure Wolff, Rossetto, and Hernandez would be available for the bench in Philadelphia on Tuesday. Rossetto had a sneakily impressive 45-minutes of play, completing a whopping 98% of his 47 passes while creating one of the few good chances at the end of the half. Reilly and Lambe lined up in a similar double pivot to Wolff and Rossetto with Reilly tasked with more of the attacking responsibilities.
OKC jumped out aggressively in the second half, attempting to ambush a younger 2s side much in the same way they overwhelmed Tulsa the previous week. “We had to make a few changes a half time which kind of broke our rhythm a little bit. They pressed us higher, and they pressed us with more intensity, so it made it more difficult for us,” Annan observed. It didn’t take long for OKC’s increased pressure to lead to a chance. Just a couple of minutes after the half, Novo made a critical save to keep the game scoreless for the visitors.
Despite dominating possession and pace of play in the first half, the 2s found themselves on the back foot in the second half. The team was forced to play tighter and more compact as a defensive unit, but the beauty of the younger academy-led 2s sides is their speed.
In the 61st minute, Coleman Gannon burst up the right flank on a counter with a wave of young 2s trailing him. As Gannon slashed back into the box, his attack was stymied by an OKC defender who cleared the ball but only as far as a leaping Brendan Lambe at the top of the box. Lambe nodded the ball to Reilly who slotted home a beautiful assist to Goodrum for the first goal of the season.
Annan heaped praise on his young players for an impressive team goal.
“Phil worked his tail off tonight. He really did. Pressing and trying to hurry their defense, he did a great job. For him to get a goal when he had been off for so long with his injury, I think it is a big confidence boost for him. But I was thrilled with Will Reilly and what he did before that to make the goal was special too. Really happy, really good goal. We’re happy for Phil that he gets off the mark early in the season.”
This goal shows the remarkable quality and potential of Gannon, Lambe, and Reilly. This young trio continues to live up to the moment and prove themselves unafraid of older professional competition.
With the goal, OKC’s momentum snapped. By the 72nd minute, Atlanta looked comfortable and in control. The team looked content with their one-goal lead and with absorbing any pressure OKC threw at them. The next wave of substitutions came in the 78th minute with Alex Garuba entering the match for Goodrum and then in the 84th minute with Josh Bauer replacing Kamdem Fewo to add another body to the defense.
Bauer’s entrance came at the perfect time. At around the 80th minute, OKC threw everything forward to earn a flurry of corners. Their best chance came in the 82nd minute as Conor Donovan pinged a header off of the crossbar above an outstretched Novo. With stoppage time approaching OKC seemed on the verge of an equalizer but a professional foul by Lambe snuffed out any hope for OKC. Lambe (and Annan) will gladly take that yellow card any day.
After impressing in two straight matches, the 2s earn their first points with a gritty and well-deserved win on the road in Oklahoma City. Annan had a lot of praise for his young team.
“I thought it was a tough match. Obviously, it is a smaller pitch, tough to play on. They are a very strong, physical team so it made it very difficult for us to play. But I thought we controlled the game, controlled possession. In the second half they pressed a bit higher and made it a bit more difficult for us. But the guys, I thought, played very well.”
A Few Final Thoughts:
- The Reserves showed their quality and reasons for confidence going ahead in 2021. Campbell and De John looked sharp and in control. The organization has to feel comfortable about their depth in the central defense after performances like tonight. Ronald Hernandez and Mikey Ambrose also showed their quality and why they are both well-suited for Heinze’s needs at fullback. Tyler Wolff continues to grow into his midfield role and looks faster and sharper with every start. And, finally, Rossetto showed some growth and the potential to be a valuable member of the midfield rotation later this season.
- The kids are more than alright. In fact, they continue to look pretty darned good. It is no secret that we at DSS are very excited about our young talent. With opportunities to prove themselves at the USL level, players like Riley, Lambe, and Gannon continue to out-perform their older and more experienced teammates. Rocco Ríos Novo also showed that his CCL performances were the real deal and that the Atlanta United organization is deep at the goalkeeping position.
- Finally, every year we look for a player who is a darkhorse candidate to make an impact at the MLS level. In previous seasons we saw Luiz Fernando, Laurence Wyke, Jackson Conway, and Jack Gurr show that there is real value to be found on the 2s team. This year, that player might be Aidan McFadden. McFadden has shown a great deal of versatility and speed for the 2s this season. He willingly accepted an unfamiliar role at right-back and has adapted quickly. He continues to show his speed, his nose for goal, and his uncanny ability to pick out a pass. With McFadden impressing early with the 2s, and Jack Gurr impressing in his limited opportunities in MLS, Atlanta United looks set for years with an abundance of depth at both fullback positions.
Next up, Atlanta United 2 has a long break before returning to Oklahoma for a rematch against the OKC Energy on May 16th. OKC will be out for blood after being upset but an upstart 2s side. With more first-team reserves accepting the opportunity to play for the 2s, look for an entertaining and dynamic rotation of MLS, USL, and academy players cycling through the squad for the remainder of the season. While serving as a clear benefit for the organization, it is also a delight for both casual and hardcore fans to get glimpses of the team’s future. Every USL matches streams on ESPN+ so join us again in two weeks to watch the continued development of the future of Atlanta United.