Atlanta United 2 welcomed fans back to the Fifth-Third Bank Stadium Sunday afternoon with high hopes to repeat the same dominant performance they displayed in their 5-0 win over Tulsa. The team’s confidence was at an all-time high after the best start to the season in the team’s short history. Just two points behind conference-leading Tulsa, the 2s were looking for a win against a Memphis team with a lot of questions. Memphis was shut out in their only prior competitive match of the season against Birmingham Legion and was for some goals from their offense led by former 2s player and academy product Laurent Kissiedou and Dre Fortune, brother of Atlanta United Academy’s Ajani Fortune.
While there were a lot of familiar faces in the 2s lineup, the composition of the starting 11 was significantly younger than the previous MLS Reserve-heavy squads. With Darwin Matheus nursing a shoulder injury from the previous match, Aidan McFadden shifted up to fill in on the right wing. Connor Stanley moved out to the left where he concluded the previous match as an inverted winger and Mathias Benítez remained as the false-9. Will Reilly and Efrain Morales joined Chris Allan in the midfield to start the match with Reilly taking the advanced role. Jack Gurr returns to the 2s at right-back with Josh Bauer, Bradley Kamdem Fewo, and Caleb Wiley joining him at the back. Finally, Alec Kann makes his 2021 debut in goal after battling injuries through training camp and the beginning of the season.
Each club began the match with completely different ideas on how they intended to win. Atlanta wanted to dominate possession and use the wings to press the ball forward or link up with midfielders to switch the field of play. Memphis was content to not have much of possession if they were able to stretch and isolate Atlanta to make them vulnerable to blistering counterattacks.
It became obvious early on that heat and fatigue were going to be challenges for both teams. Atlanta was playing their third match in seven days and Memphis was playing their second match all season so neither team began the match fully fit. Atlanta’s starting midfield trio of Reilly, Morales, and Allan demonstrated that Annan did not believe his team was capable of playing the same high energy style they are known for in a brutally hot day game, so he was content to clog the midfield with two holding midfielders and a #8 who would be tidy on the ball and feed the wingers to run into space. This was a slower midfield but it was one meant to control the ball and lock down the middle of the field.
Benítez forced a quality save from his 8th-minute free-kick and Connor Stanley continued to look dangerous on the left wing but these players were clearing rationing their runs to survive the match. Caleb Wiley took the ball inside and made yet another beautiful full-field run that nearly resulted in the opening goal, but after starting quickly and trying to establish their control of the match, Atlanta began to waver after only the first fifteen minutes. As they tired and began to slow, Memphis pounced on their opportunities to quickly spring the counter-attack and run at the Atlanta defenders.
Alec Kann first heard his name called in the 14th minute with a tidy save from his outstretched hand to deny the opening goal, but his second save minutes later was one for the highlight reel.
Kann looked healthy and confident after returning from shoulder surgery and seemed to grow in confidence as the match progressed.
The slower and more deliberate building from the back that we are familiar with went out of the window despite the heat and exhaustion. To exploit tired legs, both teams began whipping field-switching crosses and lobbing balls over the top of defenders to on-rushing forwards. One thing that became increasingly clear was that this game was going to be wide open and both teams’ defenders were in for an exhausting battle. This is the perfect kind of game for Benítez who uses his slick movement on and off of the ball to get into space and draw fouls in dangerous areas. In the 27th minute, he did just that to force a free-kick from just outside of the box. This time, it was Aidan McFadden’s turn to stand over the ball.
With the opening goal came new energy for the 2s as they began to relentlessly harry the Memphis backline. The new aggressive energy seemed to embolden both teams so as Atlanta upped their energy so too did Memphis. With the energy came the physicality and in the 39th minute, the first of many cards came out, this time penalizing Francis Atuahene for a hard foul on Jack Gurr. Less than a minute later Efrain Morales entered the referee’s book after obliterating Laurent Kissiedou when diving for a loose ball.
As the clock ticked closer to halftime, Atlanta began to look to the salvation of the locker room and a chance to get out of the heat. Unfortunately, they still had a few minutes to play. In the 45th minute, Mark Segbres blitzed down Atlanta’s left flank unopposed and whipped a dangerous cross into the box to find an unmarked Kadeem Dacres for the point-blank volley. Like so many matches in 2020, the 2s failed to deny their opponent the closing-minute goal and so they entered halftime tied.
We keep grinding in the second half ⚫️ pic.twitter.com/FfNwPIogI1— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) May 23, 2021
The second half began with Robbie Mertz’s Atlanta United 2 debut as he enters the match for Efrain Morales. Mertz’s entry shuffles the midfield and adds some speed and athleticism to the group while also allowing Reilly to drop centrally to where he is more comfortable. Mertz was tasked with playing a very similar role to Tyler Wolff’s previous appearances, ranging across a rotating front-4 with movement and quick passing disorienting and spreading out defenders.
The wide-open play of the first half continued in the second with Memphis remaining dangerous on counters in open play, yet not as effective in build-up unless it was a single ball over the top from the keeper. Benítez got even more involved in the build-up play, dropping deep into the midfield to help advance and circulate the ball while also marking Laurent Kissiedou. For that, he earned a card of his own in the 54th minute.
In the 62nd minute, Coleman Gannon entered the match for Caleb Wiley. Gannon lined up on the left wing, Stanley moved over to the right, and McFadden dropped to left-back where he was tasked with linking up with Gannon while solidifying the flank. Wiley played well but also got caught in transition a few times. He continues to show his ability going forward and his strong defense but still has plenty of room to continue his development.
Moving McFadden back to a fullback position immediately added a new dimension for Atlanta. Just a few minutes later he drew a foul outside of the box for a set-piece that led to a flurry of corners and crosses. The team was hungry for another goal but their flagging energy continued to haunt them.
The game stretched out further into a ricocheting series of small quick skirmishes between five or six players at each end of the pitch as each the need for a midfield all but disappeared. Each team’s defenders displayed gallant heroics to hold off this constant on-slaught including a goal-line clearance from Jack Gurr to keep the match even. But finally, a beautiful bit of distribution from the Memphis keeper flipped the field and this time Laurent Kissiedou found the back of the net.
Immediately, Connor Stanley exited the match for David Mejia to make his 2021 debut. Stanley was clearly struggling as the game progressed which is to be expected considering where some of these players’ fitness levels are at the moment. Moments later, Darwin Matheus entered for Will Reilly, shuffling the midfield to position Matheus at the 10, Mertz to the 8, and Allan to the 6. This new Atlanta squad was significantly faster and was determined to claw their way back even with Memphis. David Mejia nearly got them there in the 81st minute as his rocket from distance was saved and spilled by John Berner.
Throughout this whole match, the chippiness seemed to grow. Each team desperately wanted a win and wanted to dominate their opponent. Players were frustrated, amped up on adrenaline, and were ready to go through their opponent to get the ball back. The brutal physicality increased as the match reached its final minutes. Jack Gurr, who had been kicked and throttled throughout the match, walloped Raúl Gonzalez on a contested header and then moments later was shown red as he fired a ball at Atuahene after being tackled on the sideline.
Playing a man down with only four minutes of stoppage time remaining, the match seemed lost for Atlanta, but the players on the pitch certainly did not feel that way. Josh Bauer came alive defending two or three different positions to dominate his defensive third, and Aidan McFadden emptied the tank blazing lung-busting runs in search of his second brace in two games.
In the waning seconds of the match, David Mejia whipped a speculative ball towards goal that was parried away by the keeper directly to McFadden who volleyed it right back where it came from into goal.
And so the match ended with another last-minute miracle salvaging a point. While this team is not perfect by any means they are exciting, hungry, and believe they can win any game against any opponent. While today was not a win, their continued fight to salvage a draw at home shows an admirable spirit to this young group of players and can give fans plenty of reasons to be excited about their future this season with the 2s and beyond.
A Few Final Thoughts:
- Man of the Match once again goes to Aidan McFadden who earned his second straight brace while playing all over the field. McFadden showed his versatility, starting on the right wing before switching to the left before finally ending the match at left-back. He is a selfless player who has the skills, intelligence, and determination to inspire his teammates and change the course of a match. After the match, Coach Annan had high praise for McFadden: “Aiden is one of the bright sparks for us at the moment...He’s a bright guy. He’s got a lot of talent. He’s got some tidying up to do, but what an engine. Up and down from start to finish. I couldn’t be any happier with Aiden and what he’s doing right now.” There are so many things to like about this young player and plenty of reasons to believe he can be useful to Atlanta United at the MLS level.
- We had a lot of debuts and first glimpses of players in this match. Robbie Mertz and David Mejia got their first minutes of the season and U-17 centerback Noah Cobb got his first appearance on the bench. Cobb comes from the same stock as the young talent who took over the 2s in 2020 and could make his debut later this season as scheduling and player rotation create openings in the roster.
- Finally, we recognize the incredible defensive match Josh Bauer played on a brutally hot day. He was constantly involved and bailed out the team on multiple occasions. Bauer continues to show why it was such a shock to everyone that he was available in the second round of the draft. He was been solid for us so far and continues to grow with his new team as he showcases his ability on the ball and on defense.
Next up, the 2s welcome Anderson Asiedu, JJ Williams, and the Birmingham Legion to Fifth Third Bank Stadium for the first time in 2021. Birmingham has not had a great start to their season with only 4 points through 4 matches, but they are still a talented veteran side that can score a lot of goals and control the midfield. Luckily, the 2s will have a full week to rest up for this crucial local rivalry. The match will once again be an afternoon fixture with the start currently scheduled for 3:30 pm.