Atlanta United 2 entered the night with two burning desires. They wanted a big result for their new manager Jack Collison and they wanted to avenge their frustrating season-opening defeat to Louisville City. Achieving either goal would be a gargantuan task as the dangerous veteran Louisville side came to town looking for blood after only earning 7 points in their four opening home fixtures.
Atlanta fielded some new faces including the first starts of the year for David Mejia and Will Reilly. Mejia began the game on the left wing opposite Connor Stanley on the right and Mathias Benítez sandwiched between as the false-9. Robbie Mertz and Will Reilly split duties in the advanced midfield with Chris Allan sitting behind them in an inverted triangle. Caleb Wiley returned as the left-back with Bradley Kamdem Fewo, Josh Bauer, and Aidan McFadden filling out the defense. In goal, Alec Kann returned with the hope of bringing some much-needed veteran grit.
Both clubs seemed intent on playing similar tactics from the beginning. Both wanted to play from the back, press hard, and control the midfield. Atlanta prioritized the flanks a bit more than Louisville and continued their fluid cycling front 4 while Louisville stuck with a more traditional target forward and played through the middle. Both teams wanted heavy possession and to overwhelm their opponent with constant pressure.
Atlanta’s defense had to come up big early as Alec Kann earned his first save on a comfortable strike straight into his arms in the 3rd minute and then seconds later Bradley Kamdem Fewo bailed the team out with a clearance just feet from goal. Atlanta looked disjointed higher up the pitch as a slew of bad turnovers put the team on their heels for the opening ten minutes. Atlanta adopted a bend-don’t-break posture and poured their relentless pressure and heroic defense into the fray forcing Louisville to resort to playing balls over the top to escape.
After surviving an all-out blitz by Louisville, the next ten minutes firmly belonged to the 2s. As Atlanta grew in confidence, Caleb Wiley began imposing his will on the left flank, handily outplaying Niall McCabe who is nearly twice his age. In the 26th minute, Wiley got his chance and whipped a superbly placed and timed cross to McFadden as he crashed the back post.
After the goal, the physicality of the game skyrocketed. A wildly confident 2s team threw their bodies around to win every challenge and a visibly frustrated Louisville team threw elbows right back. The battle for the midfield erupted as Mertz and Mejia earned yellow cards for hard tackles through the back of their opponents. Tempers flared and the referee’s patience waned as Stanley drew a penalty of his own for delaying a restart in the 44th minute. Overall, Atlanta did an excellent job playing the role of the chippy young upstart, throwing their weight around and openly disrespecting the clear favorite in the USL. Bauer and Kamdem locked down Louisville’s forward Kyle Greig, and Will Reilly held his own against an extremely physical duo of Corben Bone and Paolo Del Piccolo.
So, the teams entered the half with Atlanta United 2 ahead of Louisville City by a score of 1-0. Louisville were stunned. They were supposed to beat young 2s teams like this, and it seems the USL officiating agreed with them.
The second half opened with adjustments up top by Louisville. Someone on their technical staff spotted a weakness in the Atlanta defense and so they adapted their formation to exploit it. While we do not know exactly what Louisville saw, it could have been that Kamdem was favoring his left foot for the entire first half to the point that he flat out refused to make a single pass with his right foot even when it meant spinning and dribbling into danger in a much more challenging maneuver than to simply pass it back to his keeper. Luckily, Atlanta’s new bench has the tactical acumen and teaching ability to help their defenders make adjustments of their own on the fly. Bauer came alive in the second half by commanding his defensive assignments and frustrating Greig at every turn with some exquisite composure on the ball.
It did not take long for the referee to set the tone for the second half. As Alec Kann slid in to cover a speculative ball looped in from Louisville’s midfield, he took a two-footed spearing from a lunging Greig to his thighs. No red, said the referee, just a yellow. Atlanta was livid. With a license to kill, Louisville upped their physicality, goading Atlanta into a street fight that they hoped would result in second yellows for several of Atlanta’s players. In the 62nd minute, the dirtiest player in the USL Alexis Souahy slammed McFadden to the ground by his head on an aerial challenge, but that went unnoticed by the referee. Minutes later, Darwin Matheus, shortly after entering the match for David Mejia, picked Souahy’s pocket and was immediately wrestled to the ground, but had the fouled called against him for a phantom infringement. To show that he had not misplaced his yellow card, the referee booked Chris Allan in the 67th minute on an intelligent tackle to stifle a Louisville counter. And so the half continued with no-calls for Louisville and saves off of the goal line by Atlanta.
Ajani Fortune entered the game for Will Reilly in the 76th minute. With the game increasingly getting out of hand and with increasing pressure on Chris Allan, Collison went with a midfielder who could throw his weight around a bit more. Shortly after ignoring another cardable offense by Grieg, the referee welcomed Fortune to the match with a questionable call of ball-to-hand in the box. Penalty for Louisville. The Atlanta players raged at the referee. Would this be how the match was stolen from them? Not if Alec Kann had anything to say about it.
Not only did Kann make the initial save but he popped right back up to block the follow-up, keeping his team alive against all odds. Kann’s fire inspired his young teammates as they weathered a ferocious onslaught by an increasingly desperate Louisville. Collison’s final subs of the night were Efrain Morales for Mertz and Alex Garuba for Benítez. Morales brought some much-needed size to set-piece defense and Garuba offered a more traditional hold-up center forward for a team in search of a release valve from Louisville’s attack.
After seven minutes of stoppage time and attack after attack by Louisville, the match was finally over. This was a statement win for Atlanta and a well-deserved win for debutant manager Jack Collison.
A Few Final Thoughts
- Man of the Match is a close tie between Caleb Wiley and Alec Kann. This was easily Wiley’s best match and one of his most challenging match-ups against McCabe and Bone. Wiley looked in control for most of the match and possessed remarkable closing speed to regain control when poor positioning allowed his opponent to get behind him. Wiley is special and continues to grow with every opportunity he is given. On the other side of the age spectrum, Alec Kann had his best night in years. This was the Alec Kann that earned the love of the 17s at Bobby Dodd Stadium as he gave his all and stood on his head for his new team. Kann proved to be a valuable leader out of the back and showed that he has plenty of soccer left in him after spending his off-season recovering from shoulder surgery. Despite some errant delivery in distribution, he looked in midseason form in keeping the ball out of the net.
- Atlanta United’s two 2021 Superdraft picks were fantastic tonight. McFadden continues to be one of the best players on the pitch showcasing his elite scoring ability from the fullback position to earn his fifth goal of the year. Bauer continues to improve and to prove doubters wrong. His ability to defend on an island continues to improve and his ability to use his feet to calm the game or to create chances offers a vital element to the club’s tactical approach. Both players are looking like absolute steals at their draft positions and could challenge for minutes at the MLS level in 2022.
- Tonight was the first time I have heard a television crew articulate a fact that was often suspected but never confirmed. After witnessing the unbalanced officiating in the second half which should have seen two Louisville players sent off, the announcers shared USL’s dirty secret that veteran teams like Louisville often get the benefit of the doubt on hard challenges while 2s teams do not. The veteran teams know that and try to use that to their advantage to try to force their younger opponents to lose their composure. In the past, Atlanta would have succumbed to their rage and would have lost the match, but tonight they transcended that and proved themselves to be a force in the USL.
Next up, the 2s take on Sporting Kansas City II in a midweek match-up back at Fifth Third Bank Stadium. The match will be available on ESPN+ at 7:30 pm.