A confident Atlanta United 2 team headed to Birmingham in search of their first-ever win against the Birmingham Legion. In their last match-up, the 2s gave the Legion a good scare but the rain came and prematurely ended what could have been a history-making performance for the 2s. Coming off of their first win in eight matches, the 2s were hungry for more as they took on Anderson Asiedu and JJ Williams in the quagmire of Birmingham’s Legion Field.
#ATLUTD2's Starting XI vs @bhmlegion pic.twitter.com/KDiQrsfUT0— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) July 31, 2021
The 2s got a big asset back from the first team for this important fixture. Josh Bauer returned to line up alongside Bradley Kamdem Fewo at the hear of the Atlanta defense. Caleb Wiley and Bryce Washington bookended the defensive duo, and ahead of them, the 2s trotted out the same starting midfield and forward trios of Chris Allan, Robbie Mertz, and Jay Fortune in the midfield, and Connor Stanley, Mackey Diop, and Aidan McFadden up top.
The bench remained unchanged aside from Bauer bumping academy standout Noah Cobb to the sideline.
When I referred to Birmingham’s field as waterlogged at the beginning of the article, that was not a rhetorical bit of mudslinging at our regional rival. Birmingham’s particular propensity to precipitation in 2021 has led their beautiful grounds to play more like a sodden pasture than a proper pitch. Frankly, the French calvary at Agincourt faced a better-drained field than the Alabama mud pit the teams were forced to play on tonight. The sort of brutal slog that comes from these conditions tends to favor Birmingham’s physicality but the 2s have shown they have the grit to tussle in the muck.
As expected the match opened as a physical defensive brawl yielding few opportunities for either side. With Birmingham’s counter-attacking speed theoretically blunted by the bog, Head Coach Jack Collison opted for a possession-heavy approach. The going was slow as promising passes along the ground skidded and died in standing pools. Accuracy was erratic as each side opted to loft balls up the field.
To save you, dear readers, from any further boredom, let’s jump 35 minutes forward into the match to the feet of Mackey Diop. He flicks his eyes up and sees Aidan McFadden sprinting towards the touchline. Diop feeds McFadden and what came next can only be described as McFadden kicking Carlos Bocanegra’s office door down, climbing onto his desk, and shouting through a megaphone, “Seen enough yet?”
No stopping this absolute rocket from @Aiden06McFadden pic.twitter.com/8hsNgcFvrK— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) August 1, 2021
Now with the lead, the 2s turned to their stout and courageous defense to bog down the floodwaters of Birmingham’s attack.
Getting down and dirty pic.twitter.com/dhaKuRRR6D— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) August 1, 2021
Birmingham came out of the locker room like a tsunami. Wave after wave of Birmingham attacks swept forward as Atlanta’s lead-footed passing forced them deeper and deeper into their own half. Perhaps their socks were too full of water or perhaps they were fooled by the natural camouflage soiling their formerly pristine white uniforms. Either way, the 2s could not advance the ball.
Collison had seen enough. Just 11 minutes into the half, Abdoulaye Diop and Philip Goodrum entered the match for Fortune and Mackey Diop. Minutes later, Birmingham countered with a more consequential double substitution, plugging one-time red-card-earning former-Atlanta United forward JJ Williams and Junior Flemmings to the match.
Williams immediately took over the match, using his size and power to churn through the mire like a Clydesdale. Within minutes of Williams and Flemmings entering the match, Birmingham found themselves ahead by a score of 2-1, the first coming from a questionable penalty drawn by Williams by a shirt tug from Kamdem, and the other from a defensive miscue that left Flemmings all alone just inside the 18.
One thing that remains true for the 2s is that they are bad at holding a lead but they are one of the most tenacious teams in the league at fighting from behind. Seconds after Flemmings put the Legion ahead, Wiley whipped the ball across the face of the goal to Mertz who volleyed it just wide at the near post. Wiley continued to press the ball forward, finding McFadden at the penalty spot but his blast went straight at the Birmingham keeper.
Sensing the surge in momentum, Collison thrust speed into the match with “the closer” Darwin Matheus and Brendan Lambe entering the match in the 77th minute for Connor Stanley and Chris Allan. Matheus made himself an immediate menace fighting for a free kick and a corner in back-to-back sequences. Alex Garuba entered for Bradley Kamdem Fewo in the 86th minute, and the 2s poured everything forward. But JJ Williams had other plans. With nearly every 2s player committed forward, Williams galloped down the field with dreams of icing the match. He had one man to beat, Rocco Ríos Novo, but from out of nowhere Abdoulaye Diop swept him aside to force his shot wide.
With Neptune on their side, the 2s flooded forward. Once again, it would come down to their final attack.
No. puts on the cape in stoppage time pic.twitter.com/vptKzAttC4— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) August 1, 2021
Darwin Matheus does it again!
Not giving in #UniteAndConquer #BHMvATL pic.twitter.com/V14KfaOWTU— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) August 1, 2021
A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS
- Man of the Match goes to Darwin Matheus. Matheus has become an incredible difference-maker for the 2s coming off of the bench. He is an immediate injection of pace and danger for the team and has an attitude on the pitch that inspires the players around him. When he comes on, he believes that he is going to create a goal, whether that is off of his own boot or by setting up his teammate. After the match, Collison heaped praise on his young player. “As a group, we were so pleased for Darwin to get his goal tonight because he’s worked like an animal this week in training. So, it’s great for him to get an equalizer. It’s great to do it the last kick of the game,” said Collison. This kid is one to watch.
- Darkhorse honorable mentions go to both Aidan McFadden and Robbie Mertz. These two players are indispensable for the 2s. Both of them do so much work on and off of the ball that goes unrewarded but both are vital to this team’s continued success. Mertz has made a compelling case to remain with the 2s in 2022 for a chance to compete for 2023, and McFadden seems poised to play his first MLS minutes in the coming weeks if the club’s depth continues to deteriorate.
- Caleb Wiley showed a lot of quality tonight. He struggled in the first half on defense in adapting to the conditions to try to contain the shifty Jonathan Deal. A lot of young players would have lost the mental battle there, but Wiley came back with a vengeance in the second half, practically driving the Atlanta attack through his flank for the final 25 minutes. This kid is special.
- Finally, shoutout to Coach Collison for the brilliant pun that went right over the Birmingham sideline reporter’s head. When asked about the imperfect pitch conditions, Collison responded that he didn’t think the team had a “pitch-perfect performance”. Keep them coming, skipper.
Next up, the 2s return to Birmingham to play on hopefully a slightly less soggy pitch on Wednesday night. “Hopefully, the pitch will be a little bit more drier so that we can spend more time moving the ball, possessing the ball, and actually being able to build out of our own half without the worry that it’s going to stop in the middle of the pitch,” quipped Collison. This will be the second match of their 5 matches in 15 days stretch that will push their fitness and depth to the breaking point. This midweek match is the makeup for the previously rained-out fixture from earlier in the summer. Match coverage begins in ESPN+ at 8 pm ET.