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Atlanta United 2 defeat Philadelphia Union II 2-1

The 2’s keep their post-season hopes alive with a 2-1 victory over the Union

If you happened to be watching the First Team match instead of this one, you missed out on the fun. For the first time this season, Atlanta United 2 played against a team who was on average younger and smaller that they were.

The 2’s traveled to Chester, Pennsylvania to take on a Union II side in which the oldest player was 20 years old and the rest were still in high school. The 2’s were not able to take advantage of their physical advantage over this young Union side on attacking set pieces but mostly dominated possession and challenges throughout the match with the Union commentators on ESPN+ constantly remarking on how much bigger and stronger the Atlanta players looked compared to their opponents. Ironically, it was our speed and athleticism that created the two goals on the night, and not our size.

The 2’s featured a couple of new faces in the lineup this week. JJ Williams made his first appearance for the 2’s in what may be an extended time away from the first team. Also making his debut was academy goalkeeper Vicente Reyes. Reyes is wiry and lanky a youth international from Charleston, South Carolina who has recently featured for the Peruvian youth program. Reyes got his shot in the net to give Ben Lundgaard a well-deserved night off after racking up enough saves to be near the top of total saves in the USL Championship. A notable absence from the roster was Efrain Morales who may still be nursing the knock he picked up in the previous match.

The night started awkwardly with neither team looking comfortable on the pitch and Atlanta showing some rust after over a week without a match. The chances started to materialize as JJ Williams took on a False-9 role centrally with Macky Diop and Phillip Goodrum playing as advanced wings. Williams acted as facilitator for the two wingers and they overlapped well with the midfield and with the fullbacks as Gurr and Wiley found their way into the flow of the match. The team felt due for a goal as the chemistry and the movement seemed to build, and then Macky Diop came up with a big goal, his 6th in 8 matches.

What started as a busted play turned into a golden opportunity as Phillip Goodrum played Diop off of the opposite shoulder of his run, but the curling nature of the run in behind his defender caused the defender to loose his marking and set Diop up for a one-on-one chance with the keeper off of the left side of the box. Diop’s rocket put the team up 1-0.

A couple of additional chances came to nothing before the half-time whistle so the team entered the locker room with a slim lead. We can surmise what may have been on the players’ minds in the locker room. This was not the first time in the last month that they had entered halftime with a lead. This was not the first time this young side looked looked battered and worn down by a grueling USL season. Somewhere in their collective consciousness they had to know how slim their margin was for retaining relevance in a tumultuous season and clinging on to the hope of their first post-season appearance. They needed this win or the season was effectively over. Lose or draw and they would be playing for pride and their next contracts.

At the half, Annan subbed out JJ Williams and Abdoulaye Diop for Jackson Conway and Coleman Gannon. Diop may have been an injury substitution after badly rolling his ankle in the waining minutes. Conway entered the match after having missed the last slew of action at due to a single game suspension that grew to an extended time off thanks to a prematch injury in Birmingham.

Conway and Gannon made an immediate impact. This young and dynamic duo inject a great deal of energy and excitement into the match when they share the pitch. Macky Diop shifted centrally, Goodrum moved to the left, and Conway slotted in at the attacking tip of the midfield trio ahead of Njie and Will Reilly. Speaking of Will Reilly, this may have been his best match in a long while. The young holding midfielder looked calm and composed in possession and distribution as he filled a role we have seen Jeff Larentowicz and Darlington Nagbe both play for the senior side. Reilly distributes from the back and often drops in between the centerbacks to form a deep triangle with his goalkeeper and one of his defenders to cycle the ball forward through overlapping runs on the flanks. Gurr and Wiley both provided those options with Gurr producing some beautiful sprints forward on the right, sprung by key passes from Gannon.

Soon after the restart, the match paused for a moment so that the players and fans could share a special moment. We are all acutely aware of what is happening in our country and around the world, and it is poignant to see the officials and players pausing the match to bring attention to something that is so much bigger than sports.

After a brief pause, play resumed.

The next wave of subs began in the 60th minute. Daniel Steedman entered for Baboucarr Njie in the central midfield and Amir Bashti entered for Mackey Diop. With Bashti’s entry into the match, Atlanta had completely rotated their attacking trio into a smaller, faster, and equally dynamic threat.

Most fans who have followed Atlanta United from its early days know that when you play proactive and aggressive attacking soccer, chances come and errors are forced that sometimes lead to goals. The more chances a team creates, the greater the possibility of one of them ending up in the back of the net. For the second time this season, a high looping cross from Amir Bashti posed a serious dilemma for the opposing goalkeeper. The ball was too high to field easily but threatened to curl on frame. The Union keeper went up for the ball, flubbed the catch and waiting behind him for his second Bashti-assisted goal of the season was David Mejia.

Mejia has made quite a season out of feasting on these late-game chances. The 16-year-old may have quite a career if he continues to be in the right place at the right time and continues to bury his chances. Just ask Chris Wondolowski how that has worked out for him.

With 7 minutes of stoppage time to go, the Union showed they still had some fight in them. As the rain poured down, their new homegrown Paxten Aaronson, younger brother of phenom Brenden Aaronson, score a pretty goal to cut the lead to 1 but it was not enough as Atlanta United 2 sealed the victory.

Congratulations to Atlanta United 2 for the victory. Now back to the training grounds ahead of a home fixture against The Miami FC on September 12.