Atlanta United 2s returned to the Fraction after 10 days off hoping to break their 7-match winless streak. Atlanta has shown a lot of grit recently, earning draws at the death but have been able to claim the full three points in almost a month. Luckily, Atlanta got one of its most convincing wins of the season against Tulsa and looked to repeat that impressive performance as Tulsa returned to Atlanta. Leading this Tulsa defense was former 2s captain Mo Jadama who quickly became a fan favorite in 2020. With a stout offensive front and experienced defensive unit, defeating Tulsa seemed on paper to be a tall task.
Jack Collison rewarded Mackey Diop’s hard work in training with his second start of the season. Diop would play as a lone center forward with Connor Stanely sitting behind him to his left and with Robbie Mertz starting on the right side but playing more of a free-roaming #10. Jay Fortune has made a firm claim to Will Reilly’s former midfield spot as the #8 and Chris Allan returned to the lineup as the #6. The real points of interest of this lineup were off of the backline. The left side seemed normal enough with Caleb Wiley at left-back and Bradley Kamdem Fewo once again wearing the captain’s armband as the left centerback, but he had a new partner in 15-year-old Noah Cobb getting his second straight start and first at centerback for the 2s. Bryce Washington played to his right and operated in a dynamic and sometimes fluid role with he and Aidan McFadden shifting the formation throughout the match. At times, it seemed that McFadden had the agency to decide whether he has going to play as a wing or wingback with Washington adapting his positioning and overlapping runs to account for that. This will be a dynamic to watch going forward.
We also saw some familiar faces return to the bench with Abdoulaye Diop and Philip Goodrum returning from injury to make the bench and Brendan Lambe returning from the academy.
The match started slowly as each team struggled through the hot humid conditions on the field, but in the 7th minute, Mackey Diop set the tone for Atlanta United the first shot on goal of the match. Moments later, Noah Cobb charged into the midfield to launch a 70-yard crossfield ball to Caleb Wiley in stride on the left flank. Wiley was playing a very different role tonight. He now has free reign to run the flank while also having permission to take on defenders one-on-one towards goal. In moments he would have previously looked to find a cross into the box, he now jukes his defender and squares up the centerback to look for a shot at the near post. While that did not directly lead to a goal in this match, he created a lot of chaos for Tulsa and drew a lot of attention away from his teammates crashing the back post.
As Atlanta began to impose their control over Tulsa, Diop and Mertz started to find the game. Mertz relentlessly pursued the ball all over the midfield, probing the Tulsa formation for his teammates running into space. Mertz was feeding everyone with Wiley, McFadden, Stanley, and Diop getting looks at goal. You could feel it in the stadium (and in the comfort of your home). This one was not going to end scoreless.
In the 22nd minute, Mackey Diop chased down a beautifully weighted pass from Robbie Mertz into the box, positioning himself between Mo Jadama and the ball. Jadama clattered into him sending the two former teammates sprawling to the turf. Penalty.
The composure from the spot from No. 7️⃣ pic.twitter.com/ihQp7VTRnM— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) July 29, 2021
Up top, Diop was feeling it. The ball continued to find him all over the field and he began hunting for a second goal. Despite not being up to full game speed yet, Diop was in mid-season form in getting himself into areas to receive the ball and swing it out wide to the flanks. Mertz could sense that the energy of the game was flowing through Diop and continued to find him in dangerous areas. In the 36th minute, Diop nearly found his second goal of the match with an absolute rocket off of the near post.
Atlanta continued to pound on the door but could not find that second goal.
Meanwhile back on defense, Noah Cobb was getting a master class in positioning and leverage against the much older and stronger Rodrigo da Costa, but like many of the academy kids so far this season, he played like an old pro, coordinating masterfully with Kamdem who expertly choreographed the two teenage defenders on either side of him. With all of the youth around him, Kamdem was going to have to play a near-perfect match to earn a clean sheet.
Many veteran players know that young keepers are full of nerves, but Rocco Ríos Novo has ice water in his veins. As da Costa began his slow approach to the ball, Novo waited unflinchingly with an expression on his face like a cat stalking a canary. And just like a leopard, he sprung with lightning reflexes to parry the ball away for a corner.
And so that half came to a close with Novo firmly putting his stamp on the match and the rest of his teammates showing signs that more goals were to come after outshooting Tulsa 11 to 2 in the first half.
Tulsa came out swinging in the second half. They had not played like a team third in points in the Central Division in the first half and they certainly were not going to let a bunch of youngsters push them around. Tulsa identified Noah Cobb and Caleb Wiley as their primary targets and sought to stretch out the left side of the defense in order to strand Kamdem on an island. Despite all of this pressure, Cobb continued to repel the attacks time and time again with key clearances that only happened due to his fantastic positioning.
The battle in the midfield picked up with possession switching back and forth at a blistering pace with neither team able to string more than a couple of passes together at a time.
In the 48th minute, Mertz came up big again, getting in the way to win the ball and spring the attack up the right flank through McFadden. McFadden charged up the flank with acres of space ahead of him, but rather than take it to the touchline, he saw a window to his left with Mertz charging into it. McFadden yanked the ball back to Mertz who plunged into the box opening enough room for Fortune to crash in behind him. Mertz laid off the ball and Fortune slotted it home to put the home side ahead by two goals.
A lot of teams would sit back and start defending after their second goal but Atlanta pressed on, nipping at Tulsa’s heels as they tried to build out of the back. They knew there was a third goal in this game and they wanted to be the ones to score it.
Unfortunately, that goal was destined for Tulsa as Marlon whipped the ball in from the right to find da Costa who redirected the pass around Ríos Novo into the goal. It was a close play with Cobb barely beaten at the near post but that is one he will learn from.
The substitutions began in the 57th minute with Brendan Lambe entering the match in place of Jay Fortune. Fortune had played a strong match in the midfield, expertly controlling passing lanes and opening up room for Allan and Mertz to move freely. Though Lambe may not have Fortune’s size, he has the speed and strength to make up for it.
Tulsa became more desperate as the second half progressed and that desperation led to a fanatical belief that an equalizer was in sight. As their determination grew, so did Atlanta’s frustration. What had come so easily in the first half became a brutal battle for possession and for room to move. This frustration soon took the form of the officials who became less consistent on the night unless you consider late calls swayed by the emotions of team benches to be a form of consistency. Nearly every player on the field got their chance to direct their exasperation or disgust at the man in yellow as the clock ticked up from the 60th minute towards the 70th. But the team’s bend-don’t-break philosophy held true as they found outlets through McFadden and Stanley up the sides and through Mertz in the middle.
In the 72nd minute, Atlanta brought on Philip Goodrum for Mackey Diop and added some defensive beef to the field with Abdoulaye Diop making his season debut in place of Chris Allan. Goodrum would play up top but could drift out wide to the right midfield on occasion. Diop would sit in front of the back-4 as an additional line of defense.
And as the clock neared the 90-minute mark, Collison brought in his not-so-secret weapon off of the bench Darwin Matheus to inject some pace and danger into the match in place of Connor Stanely who had emptied the tank in a brilliant performance. Matheus was tasked with helping close out the game in what was meant to be a mostly defensive shift but he seems to have thought a third goal would do better. Seconds after entering the match he found himself with the ball at his feet and with room to run at the top corner of the 18-yard box and nearly threaded the fasted assist of the year to Bryce Washington.
The team managed to hold the ball well and use positive possession and intricate passing to milk the 5 minutes of stoppage time off of the clock. With pressure mounting for Tulsa, the youngster Noah Cobb time and time again got in the way to clear the ball.
And so the match came to a close with an all-around impressive win for the 2s and a much-needed injection of confidence ahead of two back-to-back matches against Birmingham.
A Few Final Thoughts
- Man of the Match goes to Robbie Mertz. In what was easily his best performance of the season, Mertz was masterful and relentless in getting on the ball and creating chances for his teammates. He is selfless and has an endless supply of energy to the point that he can somehow find another gear to blaze past defenders deep into the match. Despite a preseason injury slowing the start of his season, Mertz has come alive for the 2s and promises an exciting run to the playoffs for this upstart 2s side.
- Darkhorse is a tie between Bradley Kamdem Fewo, Rocco Ríos Novo, and Mackey Diop for their strong performances tonight. Kamdem plays like an extra coach on the field and showed once again how deserving he is of his captain’s armband. We have recently learned that his selfless leadership extends off of the field as he has been doing a lot of work with the academy kids in training. With all of the instability in the team’s staff over the last year, having veterans like that helps to keep an organization healthy. Despite his young age, Novo once again looked like a wily veteran out there again tonight. He continues to impress and grow before our eyes. He could be the keeper of the future for Atlanta United. And finally, welcome back Mackey Diop. His first goal of the season and 7th overall with the team could not have come at a more important time.
- The kids continue to impress. Noah Cobb, Caleb Wiley, and Jay Fortune played well beyond their years tonight and Brendan Lambe put in a serviceable shift in the central midfield. The entire academy continues to churn out polished and capable young players who do not seem phased by their older and stronger professional competition. Noah Cobb had the most complete performance of the group tonight and could be competing with his fellow defender Caleb Wiley to be the club’s next homegrown player.
Next up, Atlanta United 2 starts its most challenging stretch of the season yet with a clash against rivals Birmingham Legion on Saturday at 7:30 pm ahead of a midweek rematch against Birmingham on Wednesday as the make-up date for the previously rained-out contest that ended after just the opening 45 minutes. The 2s will likely have a short bench again with Bauer called up to the MLS team so there may be more academy debuts and heroic performances from this young and exciting team.