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Late David Mejia wonder-strike salvages point for Atlanta United 2

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Mertz and Mejia save the day (night, whatever)

Atlanta United 2 returned to the Fraction against the Oklahoma City Energy with the eyes set on pulling away from the pack in the USL Championship Central Conference playoff hunt. This was the team’s fourth match in twelve days with one more to go until the end of their grueling 5-in-15 stretch. These two teams had played each other evenly through three matches, each getting a win and splitting a draw. In their final scheduled match-up of the season, the 2s were looking to maintain some of their magic from their romp against Indy and get the full three points.

Jack Collison got a couple of new pieces to line up on his chessboard tonight. George Campbell returned to the 2s central defense and Machop Chol made his Atlanta United 2 debut on the right wing.

Up top, Tyler Wolff returned to the left wing alongside Mackey Diop and Machop Chol. Aidan McFadden shifted to the central midfield next to Chris Allan who returned to the pitch after hobbling off with an apparent knee injury in the previous match. Robbie Mertz rounded out the trio while retaining the captain’s armband. Chris Wiley remained at left-back alongside George Campbell, Josh Bauer, and Bryce Washington. Rocco Ríos Novo reclaimed his place between the posts.

The match began a little later than expected with inclement weather forcing fans to scatter to their cars for shelter. Overall, the soggy conditions added weight to the ball and made touches sloppier and less forgiving.

The 2s looked like the better and more aggressive team early. Campbell stepped up well to win back possession and to split lines with slick passing to find Mertz and Chol. Through the opening 25 minutes, the 2s banged on the door, seeing at least four potential goal opportunities stymied by OKC’s three centerbacks clogging up space in front of goal.

Like in the previous match, the best opportunity came from the team’s new tenacious pressing scheme. In the 35th minute, Mackey Diop slid through the last central defender to win the ball and popped up at the top of the box one-on-one with the goalkeeper. He deked the keeper, slid right, and scuffed the ball into the side netting as the footsteps of an approaching defender hurried his shot.

For much of the first half, the 2s were the stronger team, dominating possession (71%), chances, and overall momentum, but a highly questionable decision by the referee handed OKC a penalty at the 37th minute. During the build-up, Bryce Washington was dispossessed by Hiroki Kurimoto who was then shouldered off of the ball in the box by Bauer. Every player on the field and fan watching the match thought Bauer won the ball, but the referee thought otherwise and for good measure, he gave Bauer a very delayed yellow card a few minutes later. It is never a good sign when players openly start laughing at the ref.

Minutes later, after a sustained period of strong possession and several chances being turned away, Mackey Diop sprinted into the box and was brought down just as he was breaking away. Penalty shouts from the 2s and yellow card shouts from OKC soon followed but the ref had no interest in either so he ruled it a harmless goal kick.

So the teams went into the locker room with OKC leading by a goal.

Jack Collison knew that he needed some speed and magic to unlock the OKC defense. At the half, he substituted Darwin Matheus for Josh Bauer, trading Bauer’s defense for what he hoped would be another Matheus miracle (patent pending). This shifted the formation some with Matheus slotting into the midfield, Washington to right centerback, and McFadden to right-back. The team was playing higher with Novo joining the defenders as an outfield sweeper at times.

The 2s came out of the locker room angry. Seconds into the half, McFadden arced a cross with point-blank precision to the forehead of Diop who forced AJ Cochran to push the ball over the crossbar.

The downside of the urgency with which the 2s played was that they were forcing passes, dribbling into clusters of defenders, and making rushed decisions that wasted opportunities. As a result, OKC has their best run of possession of the game and looked like a halfway competent USL side in the process. Overall the team looked ineffective and rooted in the central third of play.

BUT, just as we were all being lulled to sleep Chris Allan does what he does so well. He charged headlong towards the 18-yard box and launched a rocket at the back post. He may claim credit for it, he may not, but somehow the ball perfectly caromed to the feet of Robbie Mertz who blasted a world-class volley home to even the score.

OKC were determined to keep the level score as short-lived as possible and forced a massive save by Novo minutes later.

In the 72nd minute, Coach Collison made a substitution that had big ramifications for both his team and for the MLS team. Campbell and Chol exited the match for Noah Cobb and Connor Stanley, to (in theory) leave them available for selection on Sunday.

Stanley made himself an immediate menace on the field and Cobb settled in nicely, unafraid and unphased by the frenetic nature of the match.

Before the subs had a chance to get comfortable, Villyan Bijev (that’s a real name, I swear) stunned the 2s with his second goal of the match to put the visitors ahead 2 to 1.

This game was in danger of getting out of hand. To the rescue came Jay Fortune who entered the match for Mackey Diop. Diop had a frustrating match, doing well to win the ball and move it through the midfield but completely falling flat in front of goal.

Minutes later, David Mejia entered for Aidan McFadden and set up shop at right-back but no one truly believed he would spend much time defending.

Like so many matches this year, this one would come down to the final seconds.

One player I have barely mentioned so far in this recap is Robbie Mertz. That has nothing to do with his impact on the match, rather, if I spend any time talking about Mertz, none of you would want to read this because an already long article would start to look like War & Peace.

Anyway, Robbie Mertz. With the end of the match drawing nigh and OKC doing everything within the rules to help the clock along, Robbie Mertz once again gathered the ball. He blazed forward, weaving past defenders and teammates until he reached the edge of the attacking third. There, he picked his head up to find David Mejia streaking down the pitch.

For the second straight time in a week, David Mejia comes off of the bench to score the match’s final goal and this one was a big one.

One final massive save by Rocco Ríos Novo was all it took to close out this wild and admittedly stressful match in which this writer may or may not have hurled an unholy amount of expletives at the poor referee through my television.

Anyway, the 2s earn another huge point at home to put themselves in a three-way tie for third place with Tulsa and Oklahoma City but with the 2s ahead on goal differential.


A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS

  1. Man of the Match goes to Robbie Mertz. Mertz has become a phenomenal player for the 2s and for the organization as a whole. He had to start slow due to injuries and his need to adapt to more freedoms at his position under Collison but that very freedom has allowed him to emerge as one of the top midfielders in the USL Champion. Mertz was crucial in earning a draw tonight, scoring the first goal and assisting on the second. His new status as captain is well-earned as he does literally everything to help this team win.
  2. Chris Allan and Rocco Ríos Novo had fantastic nights tonight. Novo kept this team in the match with several key saves and Allan played his heart out in the midfield, combining well with Campbell, McFadden, and Wiley on defense to neutralize OKC in the first half. Allan has become a stellar find for this Atlanta United collegiate scouting team. His field-switching balls, control of possession, and instinctual movement at the holding midfield position make him a player worth watching no matter where he goes next in his career.
  3. The kids once again showed that they are the beating heart of this team. Matheus added instant energy to the attack that inspired the academy youths like Cobb, Fortune, and Mejia to put in another great shift. Wiley also played well, getting into dangerous advanced areas on the left.

One more match to go in this brutal run of schedule congestion. The last one will be Saturday evening at Children’s Mercy Park against Sporting Kansas City II. SKC II has given the 2s some fun match-ups in the past with their prolific forward Enoch Mushagalusa always causing plenty of chaos on the flanks. Tune in to this one at 5:00 pm ET through ESPN+.