Atlanta United 2 traveled to Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City to take on the team formerly known as Swope Park Rangers. These two teams have had a fun season series so far with SKC’s Enoch Mushagalusa bringing his own special brand of chaos to each match. With the 2s at the end of a 5-matches-in-15-day stretch, Jack Collison was hoping that he has rotated his team enough to survive the day.
Abdoulaye Diop got his first start of the season in the 2s midfield in place of Chris Allan. Jay Fortune and Robbie Mertz retained their normal midfield positions, while a new attacking trio of Tyler Wolff, Darwin Matheus, and Connor Stanley sought to create a little chaos of their own in SKC’s defensive third. The 2s’ defense lined up in a fairly straightforward manner with Caleb Wiley, Josh Bauer, Bryce Washington, and Aidan McFadden lining up from left to right. Rocco Ríos Novo returns to goal.
One bit of good news on the bench was the return of Mathias Benitez to the bench. It has been a long absence for the team’s #9 so it will be good to see him return to the field for the run to the playoffs. Unfortunately, Bradley Kamdem Fewo is still missing. The team will need his leadership in what will be a bare-knuckle brawl to the finish for the USL Championship Central Conference.
Both teams came out of the gate at a full sprint. Both were playing as if they had heard they only got 45 minutes to play and it was winner takes all. Sporting Kansas City II had the early momentum, with the 2s escaping two would-be goals by the home side.
The 2s need a jolt of inspiration and the man for the job was Darwin Matheus. In the 3rd minutes, with his team bowing under the relentless SKC pressure, Matheus blazed a lung-busting 45-yard sprint at SKC’s keeper. His speed surprised everyone as he slid in at the feet of the keeper nearly in his own goal. The keeper narrowly freed the ball and mishit it out of bounds. Matheus’s energy was contagious and the team quickly responded.
Both teams threw high pressure at each other and both found success exploiting some of the open areas deep down the wings. SKC settled for long lobs and crosses up the flanks, mostly to Mushagalusa, while the 2s did well to work quick passes to a central midfielder and then out to the wing to find open space.
The two teams felt evenly matched with each absorbing the other’s attack while each failing to fully exploit the opportunities that they had.
Rocco Ríos Novo made his first save on the night in the 12th minute as a weakly bounced header made its way directly into his arms. Minutes later, he nearly had a much larger save to make as SKC sliced through the defense to Rojay Smith who shanked his shot wide of the far post.
With the teams playing in a mostly empty stadium, there were quite a few opportunities for fans to hear their coaches in action. As SKC continued to find wrinkles to exploit, Collison began to bark at his players about finding their marks and keeping them. The team heard him and upped their pressure.
Caleb Wiley and Aidan McFadden were under a microscope as the ebbs and flows of the match came through the wide areas. Upfield Stanley and Wolff were called on to help relieve pressure and to help push back SKC fullbacks to prevent quick overloads that could leave Bauer or Washington on islands in transition. All four of these players were more than holding their own.
As the quarter mark of the match passed, the 2s began to find the game and impose their will on SKC. Not all play was good though. In the 36th minute, Abdoulaye Diop seemed to lose his footing on a midfield tackle and ended up two-footing his opponent. An early yellow card at the holding midfield position can sometimes prove disastrous so only time would tell whether this early mishap would come back to haunt the 2s. The tension built as the early goal conceded to Oklahoma City against the run of play haunted the minds of 2s players and staff.
Relief came in the 39th minute as impressive build-up and combination play got the ball to the feet of McFadden at the top of the 18-yard box. As McFadden clattered to the ground, play paused for the moment as players expecting a whistle. When none came, SKC defender Barbir and midfielder Čućic got the ball caught between their feet and they tried to weakly clear it. Like last week, Wolff pounced on the poor clearance and slipped the ball to Robbie Mertz with only daylight between himself and the keeper. In an ultimate act of selflessness, Mertz found Darwin Matheus standing at the penalty spot.
Team effort to find the back of the net pic.twitter.com/xG2g2eqkIk— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) August 14, 2021
Minutes later, Mertz nearly netted a goal of his own when Stanley caught Mertz in stride running across the face of goal. With a bit of speed and shiftiness, he beat the keeper but was denied on the goal line by SKC’s left-back Isaiah LaFlore who stuck with him the whole way.
So teams went into halftime with Atlanta United 2 leading the match with the lone goal so far.
The second half began with a more relentless high press by SKC but by now the 2s knew how to break it. Anticipating this, Jack Collison made what may have been the most brilliant and gutsy substitute decision of his coaching career. At the half, Jack Collison substituted Philip Goodrum for goalscorer Darwin Matheus. Goodrum would play as the target forward and would add some strength and hold-up ability for the 2s. Within two minutes, Goodrum would reward his coach handily.
As the ball turned over and the 2s got out on a quick counter, Robbie Mertz found Goodrum splitting the defenders at the top of the 18. In a beautiful bit of footwork, Goodrum moved the defense one way while laying off the ball the other to find Tyler Wolff in stride.
SKC tried to get a goal back in the 50th minute as Rojay Smith forced Ríos Novo to push his laser of a shot out to the near post.
Another goal was imminent but it was anyone’s guess which side it would come from.
A few minutes later, Jay Fortune found Robbie Mertz from the seat of his pants. Mertz rocketed a shot past the keeper but was blocked on the goal line. But Goodrum was on the spot to bury the rebound.
In just 8 minutes of play, Goodrum had already created two goals for the team.
Unfortunately, it was not all good news for the 2s. Cameras caught Tyler Wolff struggling just before he waved for a substitute. It appeared as if the youngster was battling a left foot or ankle injury that we all hope does not sideline him for long. In his place entered Mackey Diop.
Like Musagalusa, Diop brings his own brand of mayhem to the match. You never fully know whether that mayhem will be to your benefit or not but it will be fun to watch.
Just one minute into the match he was already leading a breakaway and drawing a yellow card as he was chopped down in the middle of the field.
The 2s were happy to try to lull their opponents to sleep with prolonged spells of possession in their defensive third. While it did bleed the clock, it also led to bad turnovers. Abdoulaye Diop needs to go out and buy a lottery ticket. In the 60th minute, he dove in late and flailed his legs at Musagalusa who had already blown past him out of reach. Apparently, Diop forgot he was already on a yellow and nearly put his team down with 30 minutes to play, but the referee was merciful (or unimpressed) and waved it off.
Collison had seen enough, at his next opportunity, he brought in his regular starter Chris Allan for Abdoulaye Diop. On the sideline, he draped a friendly arm around the clearly frustrated player and gave him a few words of advice as he headed to the bench. David Mejia also took the opportunity to enter the match, spelling Connor Stanley who had played another one of his highly effective high energy performances.
With that crisis averted, it was time for Mackey Diop to shine. In the 73rd minute, the 2s’ high pressure struck again as Mackey Diop barreled down on a terrified defender. Fortune intercepted the pass and got it right back to Diop on the right flank. Diop charged into the box and saw Goodrum crashing to the back post.
Now up 4 goals to nil, the Collison reintroduced Mathias Benítez to the field in place of Robbie Mertz. Mertz played another phenomenal match, throwing himself around to keep and win the ball while selflessly creating golden opportunities for his teammates.
Late in the match, SKC found the back of the net on a set-piece header. The ball was right at Ríos Novo who was briefly blinded by the harsh afternoon sun. It is one he would regularly get but luckily it did not really matter as the 2s cruised to another commanding victory.
A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS
- Man of the Match goes to Philip Goodrum. Even though Darwin Matheus was phenomenal in the first half, Goodrum was the difference in the second. As the center forward, Goodrum completely changed the feel of the match from a small-ball contest that rested on a knife’s edge to a commanding traditional drubbing in which SKC had no answer for Goodrum’s combination of size, speed, and tricky passing.
- The honorable mention this week goes to Coach Collison who has implemented a brilliant high press scheme that has elevated this entire time. While the athleticism and technical ability have been there, this team looks so much more dangerous now as their hungrily harang their opponents up and down the field. There is a big difference between this kind of high press and other less sophisticated forms that he have seen before. Collison’s system requires a great deal of intelligence from the players in how they help each other close down space, mark runner, and pass along players to force bad passes and picked pockets up the field. With dynamic defenders like Wiley, Bauer, and Washington, a team can afford to take these risks and benefit greatly from them.
- Just like that, the 2s stand alone at #3 in their conference. The teams behind them may have games in hand to make up points against the 2s but the 2s have done the hard work and have plenty of wins left in them this season. The top 4 teams from each conference advance to the playoffs so the club has to feel very confident of their chances with 12 matches left in the regular season.
Next up, the 2s head back to the training pitch for some well-earned rest, rehab, and practice before their August 22nd trip to face the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. This will be a homecoming for Robbie Mertz and potentially Ben Lundgaard and Alex De John who all played for Pittsburgh before joining the 2s. Pittsburgh currently leads a very good Eastern Conference ahead of the likes of Tampa Bay and Charleston. This will be a great test for this young team. Be sure to catch all of the action on Sunday the 22nd at 7:00 pm on ESPN+.