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Fatigue and frustration as Atlanta United 2 falls 1-0 to Sporting KC II

Academy US youth international Jonathan Villal makes his debut

Mitchell Martin/Atlanta United

The 2s returned to the Fraction on short rest to face Sporting Kansas City II (formerly known as the Swope Park Rangers) in a match-up of the USL Central’s MLS II teams. Despite Atlanta United 2 entering the match as the favorite, their schedule congestion, low player rotation, and player availability challenges facing the entire organization aimed to even the odds in SKC’s favor.

Coach Collison rolled out some of the same players who ended the previous match on Wednesday in his starting 11. Alex Garuba got his first career start alongside Connor Stanley and Mathias Benítez who returned from his red card suspension. Ajani Fortune replaced Will Reilly in the midfield to bring a new skill set to the mix. Fortune lined up as the central midfielder between Chris Allan and Robbie Mertz. Bradley Kamdem Fewo slid over to left-back to give Caleb Wiley some much-deserved rest after leaving it all on the field on Wednesday. Josh Bauer lined up beside him after being an unused sub on the MLS team’s bench on Thursday. Bryce Washington lined up as the other centerback and Aidan McFadden returned to the right-back spot. In goal, Ben Lundgaard gave Rocco Ríos Novo the night off in order to get some vital minutes to stay fresh if called upon for the 1st team.

The 2s’ bench also saw some new faces. Joining Danial Sebhatu from the academy class of 2005 were midfielders Johann Chirinos and Jonathan Villal. Chirinos has played more of a central midfield role for his academy teams and Villal tends to play in a more advanced position.

The first ten minutes of the match were utter chaos. With new faces in the line-up and plenty of fatigue from the previous two matches, the 2s struggled to make anything happen. Possession was spotty to non-existent, and the field switched enough to give the camera operators whiplash. SKC thrive in this sort of match as Enoch Mushagalusa continued to terrorize Atlanta’s defense. The best the 2s could do was to break up the SKC counters in the midfield and smother the forwards up the middle. Jay Fortune was happy to oblige, jumping into passing lanes and sending the break back upfield through Robbie Mertz.

The rhythm of the match began to settle and normalize as Atlanta linked together several successful attacks up the right flank through McFadden and one on the left through Garuba. With Fortune and Allen playing deeper, Mertz and Stanley positioned themselves as twin 10s to feed Garuba wide on the left and Benítez across the top of the field.

Despite promising forward movement, the team consistently failed to break through or to put a dangerous ball on frame. SKC was happy to absorb pressure and spring it right back at Atlanta. In the 38th minute, Mushagalusa got free, sidestepped Kamdem, and pinged the ball off of Allan into the net. This was his third goal against the 2s in two matches.

Atlanta attempted a quick response but continued to flounder as the clock ticked closer to half.

The second half opened with SKC fully in control. If it wasn’t for a miraculous miss by Wilson Harris, the 2s would have been down 2 by the 52nd minute. Minutes later, Jay Fortune attempted to test his luck as his rocket from distance just missed wide.

The first change came in the 56th minute as Sebhatu entered for Garuba. It didn’t take long for Sebhatu to work his way up to speed, guiding a crafty flick through the defense into the box to find Robbie Mertz. Minutes later off of a corner, Sebhatu forced a defensive miscue between the SKC keeper and Mushgalusa to earn another corner.

Meanwhile, Stanley was fully immersed in a physical battle in the midfield. He has quickly become one of our best 1-v-1 players with the ball at his feet. Stanley’s magnetic control of the ball helped Atlanta maintain its best stretch of possession on the night, holding and cycling the ball for most of the time between the 60th and 70th minute.

Unable to break through, Collison called on 16-year-old Jonathan Villal to inject some youthful zeal into the match. Villal came on for Chris Allan and dropped Mertz and Fortune further back into the midfield. From the number 10 role, Villal began to work his magic and Mertz began to find more of the ball. The team was in desperate need of some magic and the kids were happy to oblige.

With their best chance of the night kept out of goal, Atlanta struggled as SKC seemed content to sit back in a tight box and defend. Darwin Matheus came in for Robbie Mertz in the 87th minute after Mertz was sent clattering to the pitch from a hard foul. Matheus, the hero of Atlanta’s comeback against Indy earlier in the week, believed it was his chance to do it again. His first touch was a beautiful chip to Benítez into the box from midfield. The ball found its way back to Matheus who blasted the shot just over the bar.

The team began pressing higher and higher, desperate for a goal. Bauer took up position as an extra forward and Bryce Washington sat back as the sole defender between a counter and goal. The team worked the ball around the field, probing for a crack in the SKC defense, but failing to find a chance other than another Matheus shot from distance parried out for a corner.

As the final seconds ticked down, Ben Lundgaard came forward for the final corner kick. Matheus stood over the ball at the corner flag and assessed his options. He whipped the ball in towards the penalty spot, finding Lundgaard who seemed startled that it fell to him. He gathered himself, slid a pass to Benítez and Benítez shanked it into the stands.

The match ended disappointingly but with the 2s still in the post-season hunt. It was a story of missed chances as the 2s failed over and over to find the magic that saved them earlier in the homestand. But the glimmer of hope for this weary and depleted squad came from its young newcomers. Sebhatu and Villal have a way to go yet but have more than earned another shot at glory.

A Few Thoughts

  1. Man of the Match goes to Bryce Washington for his superb defending. Washington is right at home back in the center of the defense and showed his incredible skill and speed in out-positioning and out-muscling SKC’s attackers on over a dozen counter-attacks tonight. With the defensive depth depleted at the MLS level, Washington and Bauer may be called upon as the 1s travel to face the New England Revolution on Saturday.
  2. Honorable mention goes to Jay Fortune who did a great job filling in for Will Reilly. Fortune brings a very different style of play than Reilly. Fortune is taller, stronger, and more defensive-minded than Reilly but also has a cannon for a leg that he is not afraid to use around the outside of the box. Fortune’s season with the 2s started disastrously with two yellows in the first half of his season debut but he has worked his way back into this coach’s trust. Tonight, Fortune earned more chances to show what he can do as the newest member of the 2s’ midfield trio.
  3. Mathis Benítez was trying to do too much. He is one of the most talented players on this team and obviously hates the fact that his unnecessary red card cost him a chance to help the team in the midweek match. Instead of doing what he does best, he tried to press his game and be the hero, but what we got were rushed shots, missed opportunities, and mental errors. These may have just been nerves so with a week for him to gather himself and for the coaches to restore a sense of normalcy for the team, he should be fine by the next match.

The 2s get a much-needed full week of rest and training as they prepare to face Louisville City FC on Saturday. Louisville remains one of the most dangerous teams in the USL and is currently competing for the top spot with Birmingham. With injuries and call-ups to the first team continuing to deplete the 2s, they will have a tall task ahead of them and will need all of their players ready for one of the most challenging matches of the season.