Atlanta United 2 traveled to Memphis feeling particularly blessed by the remarkable turn of events that followed their disappointing loss in Kansas City. After the match, someone realized that an SKC II player who was on the field for the full 90 minutes was supposed to be suspended. The USL awarded the 2s a 3-0 win due to the “error” and kept the team’s season alive.
As the team prepared to take on Laurent Kissiedou and Memphis 901 FC, they must have felt that destiny was shining down on them. Ahead of the match, we were able to catch up with Coach Collison and Academy Director Matt Lawry who had a simple message for us:
And so the team took a trip from Kansas City back to Memphis with reason to believe they all would be received in Graceland.
Unlike Paul Simon, Coach Collison’s traveling companions were not 9 years old, nor the children of his first marriage but the night’s lineup did lean heavily on the academy with seven current or former academy players in the starting 11 with an average age of the squad at a remarkably low 20.1 years of age.
Luke Brennan became the latest player born in 2005 to join the 2s, this time making the jump from the U-17s to play alongside academy teammate Danial Sebhatu on the right wing. David Mejia joins them up top on the left in what has been a very busy fall campaign for him between the 2s and the U-19s who are currently competing against U-23 players in the UPSL. In the midfield, Jay Fortune lines up alongside captain Robbie Mertz and Abdoulaye Diop. On defense, Bryce Washington returns to the starting lineup alongside Josh Bauer with Aidan McFadden slotting into his regular right-back slot and Caleb Wiley back at left-back. And finally, Vicente Reyes returns to the goal for his second straight match.
The 2s had a distinct playing style in mind going into this match. They would press up top with Sebhatu remaining high, they would man-mark their wings on the flanks, and would play their centerbacks high to squeeze the field into a tight box around the center third. Apparently, the game tape showed that working for other teams in the league against Memphis so the 2s tried to do this with the youngest overall lineup they have fielded on the season. When in possession, their goal was to build out of the back with balls played through Fortune while Vicente Reyes pushed high up the field to act almost as a third centerback. Coach Collison was asking a lot of his players and they did their best in the first half to live up to these tactics.
These tactics created a little bit of good chaos for the 2s in the opening 15 minutes or so but as momentum began to switch, Memphis began to pry open the Atlanta defense to find open space to run at Reyes. In the 14th minute, yet another one of these balls through the defense found one of the Memphis forwards in stride who was denied by the tip of Vicente Reyes’s boot. Reyes popped up and immediately saved the rebound attempt by Dre Fortune (Jay’s brother).
For the next 20 minutes, the 2s struggled to work their way out of their own half and weathered constant waves of Memphis attacks from every angle.
But in the 32nd minute, Robbie Mertz did what he does best when he collected a loose ball in the midfield off of a turnover and charged at the Memphis backline. He found Mejia at the top of the box whose shot was deflected out for a corner.
Minutes later, Sebhatu charges into the right corner and jukes three Memphis players out of the corporal forms to find an opening to cross the ball to the back post where Wiley fired it high and wide.
In the 40th minute, David Mejia made himself a menace, slicing his way through the Memphis midfield before being brought down outside of the 18-yard-box. Jay Fortune’s missile of a free-kick whipped around the Memphis wall and almost wrong-footed the Memphis keeper who barely reacted in time to force the ball wide.
Each time, the 2s inched their way closer and closer with a goal feeling imminent for either side.
In the 43rd minute, it was Mejia again who forced Memphis defender Mark Segbers into a weak back pass to the keeper. Mejia lunged past Segbers to win the ball but was brought down in the box. “DOGSO and red card,” screamed every Atlanta United fan, player, and staff member. The referee pointed to the penalty spot but only showed a yellow card. This is when we must remind our readers that USL-Championship does not have VAR and often has highly confusing officiating.
Much to everyone’s surprise, defensive midfielder Abdoulaye Diop stepped over the ball to take the penalty. Diop had never scored for the 2s and had never attempted a professional penalty kick. But here we were.
And so as the clocked ticked down to the final seconds of the half with Atlanta United 2 in the lead, everyone watching in their homes and in the stadium held their breath, wondering whether Memphis’s miraculously missing red card would rear its ugly head.
Narrator, “It did.”
Things started fairly well at the beginning of the second half and then quickly devolved into misery.
Speaking of VAR not existing in USL, the equalizer is a thing that may or may not have happened. It was sort of a Schrodinger’s Goal if you will. I am still confused about what happened in the 2s’ defensive breakdown and chances are they are just as confused so let’s roll the tape.
So that happened.
Moments later, Memphis was back again causing chaos in the Atlanta box. Bauer failed to clear the ball with a weak backheel flick out into no-man’s-land in front of Caleb Wiley who could only look on in horror as Kadeem Dacres put Memphis ahead.
With three substitutes lining up on the sideline, the baby 2s had one last chance to level the match before the big kids got their turn. In the 58th minute, Brennan showed some of the silky smoothness that defined his debut as he won the ball down by the left corner flag and ran it back upfield to connect with Caleb Wiley. Wiley sprinted towards the end line with the ball and cut hard into the box. With space closing around him, he laid off a beautiful ball to the penalty spot where Jay Fortune’s cannon of a boot was waiting to meet it. Fortune fired his shot into the lower-left corner but his attempt was saved.
Back on the other end, Memphis caught the right side of Atlanta’s defense sleeping and put their third goal of the half in the back of the net.
And so the night ended for Danial Sebhatu, Luke Brennan, and Caleb Wiley (all of the 16-year-olds), who were replaced by Mackey Diop, Philip Goodrum, and Bradley Kamdem Fewo during the stoppage after the goal.
Mejia is a maniac and I’m here for it. Once again, he caused his personal brand of mayhem slicing and megging his way from the right touchline into the middle of the attacking third, combining with Robbie Mertz to work his way into the box around the penalty spot. There we was knocked off of the ball, but once again, Jay Fortune was waiting to pounce.
Fortune bends it past the keeper to cut the deficit pic.twitter.com/BgOWIYrEHU— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) October 17, 2021
With blood in the water and only down one goal, Coach Collison brought on Darwin Matheus for Abdoulaye Diop, praying for a bit of that magic Matheus can bring to the end of a match.
But Memphis had other plans.
Things continued to spiral from there with both Mejia and McFadden seeming to pick up soft-tissue injuries in their lower legs. Neither injury forced them out of the game, but both players were moving with a high degree of pain and difficulty by the end of the match. That will certainly be something to watch with another short rest before the final match of the season.
The last action of note of the match came late when Connor Stanley entered for Mejia. Stanley played well and offered a few decent runs on and off of the ball from the right flank but the 2s were unable to create any solid chances despite their many attempts to claw back a goal.
A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS
- Man of the Match goes to Jay Fortune. Fortune has emerged as a fantastic young midfielder for the 2s and for the organization after emerging from Will Reilly’s shadow this season. Ever since signing his first professional contract with the 2s out of the academy, Fortune has cemented himself in the midfield alongside Robbie Mertz. He plays with a great deal of bravery and tenacity that sometimes gets him into trouble but it bodes well for his future as a hard-nosed central midfielder who can duel like a veteran in the midfield and rip rockets at goal from all over the pitch. This young man has a bright future with Atlanta United and with the Trinidadian National Team.
- The youth on display in the first half offered plenty to be excited about. “I think there were so many positives in terms of the way we played, the way we approached the game, the energy, the quality and there’s six academy kids in the starting lineup,” Coach Collison shared after the match. “The front three there is two under-17s and David Mejia. It’s great to see a young team go out there and play with such personality and bravery.” Luke Brennan and Danial Sebhatu look really intriguing after their performances tonight. Brennan has a smoothness with how he moves off of the ball and has some intriguing quickness when in possession. Sebhatu looked strong and composed as a hold-up man combining well through the midfield and doing well to break out into possession through turnovers earned in the defensive third. Collison heaped praise on the young duo,” I thought both of them did fantastic – their energy, their youthfulness. And quite often what you find with the youth is that fearlessness. I think both of them played really well today and it was great to get them 60 minutes in the tank.” While neither player was able to translate this into shots on goal, they both showed enough quality in the rest of their game at 16-year-olds to get fans excited about their prospects in 2022.
- The lack of communication between the defense, the goalkeeper, and the midfield ended up being the undoing of the 2s tonight. Reyes is a prolific shot stopper but he has to do better to help organize his defenders. The unit was also sorely missing Bradley Kamdem Fewo who has been relied on throughout the season to manage and rally his defensive teammates as a coach on the field. His entrance to the match was too-little-too-late and looked more reckless and frustrated than useful.
- It is almost mercifully over. While a playoff run was an exciting prospect for the organization and this week’s news about the fluke post-match forfeiture was also cause for bewildered excitement, this team is far from being its best form. The team is missing several of the key players that made it compelling over the summer and many of the young players are currently in the midst of their academy seasons. David Mejia is coincidentally one of the top scorers for the league-leading U-19s and for the UPSL’s Georgia Division. With the USL season almost over, the club can get back to focusing on improving the first team and continuing the development of the academy players who continue to impress.
- Once again, VAR and DOGSO reared their ugly head and directly led to the outcome of this match. It is unlikely that a 10-man Memphis team scores 4 goals in the second half, and it is unlikely the 2s walk away from this match without at least a draw. Even Coach Collison chimed in on the decisions: “Then obviously, the first goal, it’s not a goal. They showed it on the replay. We’re just trying to give these kids a chance and it’s a poor decision. I’d love to know why (Mark Segbers) didn’t get sent off on the penalty as well. And it just swung the momentum.” Overall, the team has to close out the match on the field but the referee’s decisions certainly created a challenging atmosphere for 2s to overcome.
Next up, the 2s head to Tulsa for their final match of the 2021 season. The 2s have had a lot of intriguing storylines and revelations this year and have given us plenty of reasons to be excited about the future of this organization. This match will be the fans’ and the organization’s last chance to get a good look at our academy players, draft picks, and young professionals before their offseason begins and hard choices will need to be made so this one ought to be one to watch. Tune in on Wednesday, October 20th at 8:00 pm on ESPN+ to catch all of the action.