In Tony Annan’s final match with Atlanta United, the 2s took on Anderson Asiedu and JJ Williams of the Birmingham Legion. The 2s were riding a 4-match unbeaten streak into this matchup against one of their toughest foes. Despite being ahead of Birmingham in the standings, history pointed towards this being one of the most challenging fixtures so far. Historically, the 2s have struggled against Birmingham, failing to score in any matchup so far. With their new potent offense, the 2s hoped they could break that curse.
Upfront, the 2s went with Stanley and Benítez upfront with McFadden joining them as the right wing. Robbie Mertz got his first start of the season in midfield with Tyler Wolff and Chris Allan. The Atlanta United reserves filled out the defense with Mikey Ambrose getting the captain’s armband at left-back, Alex De John and George Campbell starting at centerback, and Ronald Hernandez starting on the right. And finally, Rocco Ríos Novo reclaimed his starting spot in goal. Also of note was the return of Mackey Diop to the 2s bench.
The tactics and style of play of this match necessitate a change in how the recap is structured. Rather than focussing on the highlights from the ebbs and flows of the match, we will instead focus on the key takeaways from one of the most compelling matches so far for the 2s. Overall this match was a brilliant midfield duel that was broken late by a soft penalty in stoppage time. Despite the disappointing loss, the team should be able to find a lot of things to like about how they played against a very tough opponent.
The tactics for each side were fairly clear from the start. Birmingham intended to bully the 2s through their imposing size and physical style of play to stymie Atlanta’s quick, explosive style. The 2s were determined to control the midfield, play the kinds of quick interchanges they need to build their offense, and use a fluid multi-positional movement in the midfield and among the forwards to stretch the Birmingham lines out of shape. Both teams sought to impose their wills early and aggressively in what was likely to be a brutal fight to the end.
The match started quickly with Birmingham getting the jump first by lobbing dangerous balls to Williams and Neco Brett over the top. Their plan was to challenge George Campbell early and often. If Campbell and Williams came to blows at some point (**spoiler**, they didn’t) then that was okay by them. This seemed to light a fire under Campbell who had his best professional match. Campbell was all over the place busting up runs and runners, whipping diagonal balls upfield in his best Miles Robinson impersonations, and making LGP-like dribbles up the field into the attacking third. Though he has a quiet first half, Campbell’s defensive partners, Alex De John, had nearly as strong of a night in the second half. De John defended like a man possessed and seems to be fighting for a chance to remain relevant with the team.
On the right flank, Ronald Hernandez played a very encouraging 69 minutes. Despite a shaky start that showed his lack of chemistry with his 2s teammates, Hernandez came roaring back and showed the kind of incisive dangerous play that you want to see from an overlapping fullback. Hernandez interchanged well with McFadden and Wolff and earned at least four corners from dangerous balls whipped into the 6-yard box. McFadden once again showed his versatility, playing both wing positions before ending the match at right-back. McFadden seemed to be a major focus for Birmingham so he didn’t have as much of an impact as in previous games, but his incredible vision and feel for the game nearly unlocked the Birmingham defense several times. One of the main issues facing McFadden at this level is that he sees opportunities at a faster speed than some of his teammates so what could have been a golden slip ball results in a turnover instead.
On the left, Connor Stanley played like a giant against defenders who rose a foot above him. Whether it was in his hold-up play or his constant harassment of the opposition in the press, Stanely gave as much physicality as he got. He is an excellent dribbler with a keen sense for movement on and off of the ball allowing him to perfectly embody the traits needed to play on the wing in this system at a high level. His flank partner, Mikey Ambrose, also played a strong match but received a lot less attention than the other defenders. Ambrose made some nice defensive plays and had a few beautiful overlaps with Stanley on and Mertz. One recurring theme of the left flank was the backheel lay-off pass that saw both Stanley and Ambrose spring free for mad dashes to the corner.
The real excitement and drama of the match were in the midfield. Atlanta’s trio of Chris Allan, Robbie Mertz, and Tyler Wolff had a grueling battle with Birmingham’s Bruno Lapa, Anderson Asiedu, and Eric Crognale. Both sides relentlessly pressed the other and stuck in for some hard challenges throughout the match. This was a contest of speed, positioning, and brutality. With Wolff and Mertz both capable of playing in the advanced role, they spent most of their match together in a double pivot where Mertz was responsible for the left side of the midfield and Wolff was responsible for the right. False-9 Matias Benitez often acted as a midfielder, dropping deep and then shifting out wide to help overload the midfield in the press and in the build-up. Benitez did not have as flashy of a night as in previous matches but put in an admirable high work rate in the midfield to give the wings and the central midfielders room to spread Birmingham out and break their lines.
In goal, Rocco Ríos Novo had a fantastic match. This was the best opportunity so far to see the composure and skill he has with the ball at his feet. On several occasions, he took a pass from his defender and calmly sprinted with the ball at his feet across the box to pick out a beautiful pass into the midfield. He often played high outside of his box when in possession and snuffed out several long probing balls from Birmingham while Brett or Williams was charging directly at him. “He’s a fantastic goalkeeper,” Annan said after the match. “He’s got masses of ability. He’s a big-time goalkeeper. His feet are excellent, his hands are excellent, his positioning is excellent. I think he will be one of the best keepers in the league when he is a little bit older and he’s got some games under his belt, some experience. I see Rocco doing very well in the game. He’s a talent.” RRN commanded his goal with authority for most of the match, setting the tone early by snagging an early corner over much taller opposing players. He finished the match with 6 saves, the most challenging of which came in the 63rd minute when he parried a sure goal from Bruno Lapa off of the near post. While he is credited with allowing the only goal on the penalty kick, he should have never been put in that position in the first place so that will not detract from an all-around brilliant performance.
The first substitutions for Atlanta came in the 56th minute as Will Reilly relieved Robbie Mertz who had just earned the match’s first yellow, and Mackey Diop made his season debut in place of Benítez to offer a more traditional #9 target. In the 69th minute, Darwin Matheus replaced Ronald Hernadez. Matheus played on the left wing and bumped McFadden to right back. Finally, in the 80th minute, Bradley Kamdem Fewo replaced Mikey Ambrose to add some size to the left-back position, and David Mejia added some fresh legs on the right flank by replacing Connor Stanley. Of the substitutes, Will Reilly seemed to offer the greatest impact in his relentless work rate in the midfield. He combined well with Wolff and his other teammates on the left flank and pressured Birmingham with impressive new aggression that was not always present in previous seasons.
The match was full of chances, deflections, blocks, near-misses, and heroic defending so to end with a cynical penalty is a bit of a disappointment. In the waning minutes of the match, the 2s lost possession on a corner leading to a breakaway counter up the left flank led by Bruno Lapa with Tyler Wolff hot on his heels. As Lapa charged through the box, he felt a slight touch from Wolff and went down in a heap. Annan lamented the referee’s decision while praising Wolff’s effort after the match.
“For [Tyler] Wolff to get back to that position where he got back to, from where he was, shows the work ethic of that kid who is 18 years old. And then to be harshly judged like that by the referee, it is heart-breaking for the kid and it’s a shocking decision.”
Early in the half, Asiedu had a similar run that ended with a half-hearted flop by Asiedu as De John shuttled him to the right corner of the 18-yard box. The Birmingham bench howled with rage that this was rewarded with a penalty so when it happened again, the referee did not hesitate. On the penalty, Rocco Ríos Novo chose the wrong side for his jump and so the match ended with Birmingham ahead 1 goal to nil.
Not the result we wanted, but we come back stronger. pic.twitter.com/tAoces6nax— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) May 30, 2021
A Few Final Thoughts:
- The Man of the Match for me was George Campbell. Campbell was all over the field and was often dominating his opponents. There is so much to like about how Campbell has grown as a player, and there are plenty of reasons to feel confident about his ability to contribute at the MLS level very soon. He has good control of the ball, understands positioning to move his opponents off of the ball, and has the athleticism to play on an island. He could be in the mix to be Miles Robinson’s successor if Robinson is sold this winter.
- The kids continue to play a valuable role for the 2s. Tyler Wolff has fully embraced his move to the midfield and he looks quite good in his new position. While there are a few aspects of his game that he still needs to improve, he seems to grow each match as his confidence and competence increase. The same goes for Will Reilly who feels like an old pro at this point. David Mejia has not been allowed to make the same disruptive impact this season that he did in 2020 but he did show his speed and ability to cause chaos in the attacking third in his brief cameo.
- The unsung hero of this club is its outgoing Academy Director and Head Coach of Atlanta United 2. After the match, Tony Annan reflected on what has been an incredible ride with the club.
“I’ve had an amazing time at Atlanta United. It’s very hard for me to walk away from here, but the timing is right for me. The club has grown massively in the development sector. The Academy is in great shape, and it is going to continue to do really well under the guys that are working there. The 2’s are in the best shape they’ve been in since we’ve started the program. I feel good about leaving things, I wouldn’t say better than I found them because we started from scratch, but I feel good about walking away and leaving things in good hands. Yes, I will miss it. I think I’ve helped Atlanta United, but Atlanta United has helped me. I’m a better coach today than I was five years ago. I want to continue to get better, and Atlanta’s been a huge part of that for me. It helped me and gave me a platform to work on, like when I lose games in the last minute and I have to learn from that.”
Annan has meant a great deal to the club and his impact will continue to be felt as waves of young talent ascend to the 2s and to the first team for years to come. Thank you, Tony.
Next up, Atlanta United 2 welcomes Louisville City to the Fifth Third Bank Stadium on Sunday, June 6 at 7:30 pm. Like Birmingham, Louisville City will be a very challenging veteran team with a history of winning big games. The most important storyline to watch will be the ascendancy of the 2s’ new head coach, whether that be Henry Apaloo in an interim capacity or as the full-time coach. Over the last several matches, Apaloo has appeared in the sideline cameras acting as a de facto co-manager with Tony Annan so perhaps this will be a seamless transition.