Atlanta United 2 returned to Birmingham after earning a damp draw there just days before. This was their second match as part of a 5-in-15 day stretch that will test their fitness and depth as they enter the final two months of the most successful season of 2s soccer so far. Opposite them were a Birmingham Legion team that felt cheated of their win in the previous contest as Darwin Matheus once again rescued the 2s from defeat in the waning moments of stoppage time. The pitch was drier, the energy was high, and the 2s felt like they had the momentum.
Jack Collison hinted after the previous match that he would shake things up for the midweek fixture. Most of the changes came up front as Philip Goodrum and Tyler Wolff joined Connor Stanley as the team’s attacking trio.
The biggest roster news on the night was Darwin Matheus’s official return to the starting midfield. Jack Collison praised his young player's work ethic in training and the hunger he showed on the field to earn back his role as a starter.
“Darwin has been training really hard and probably disappointed not to be in the team. A way to show us coaching staff is to come on and affect the game. And he’s done that with not just his goal but his impetus to run forward and make things happen,” said Collison.
There he joined Chris Allan and Robbie Mertz who received the captain’s armband for the night with Bradley Kamdem Fewo serving a yellow card accumulation suspension.
On defense, Caleb Wiley and Aiden McFadden returned to their regular fullback spots while Josh Bauer and Bryce Washington paired up to anchor the central defense in front of Rocco Ríos Novo in goal.
With the ball zipping across the field, the 2s spurred a frenzied back-and-forth tempo for the match that would continue deep into the second half. In the first half, this type of game played to the 2s’ advantage as they crashed and slashed the Birmingham box with increasing ferocity. The only problem was that they could not translate golden chance after golden chance into goals. Matheus, McFadden, Wolff, and Stanley all got good looks at goal as the team selflessly cross the ball across the face of goal but with no one available on the other side to slot it home.
When Birmingham got the ball, they were mostly limited to counterattacks that Bauer handled deftly. Birmingham had most of their first-choice line-up on the field with JJ Williams and Junior Flemmings terrorizing the left side of the field with Jonathan Dean. Despite their incessant hunt for the opening goal, Bauer and Wiley held firm.
In the ninth minute, Connor Stanley cut back across the top of the box looking for a shooting lane and blasted a deflected shot to the feet of Philip Goodrum for the opening goal.
Goodrum had been targeted nearly a half dozen times before his goal and refused to let this opportunity go to waste.
But minutes later, Birmingham stretched Atlanta on the break down the right flank as Dean beat Bauer, then Wiley to find Williams crashing past Washington to the near post for the equalizer.
The rest of the first half would feature dozens of strong chances for Atlanta created through a myriad of different combinations through Stanely, McFadden, Matheus, Wolff, Wiley, and Allan, but without a second goal to show for it. Meanwhile, Williams and Flemmings continued to pester the Atlanta defense with Prosper Kassim getting involved to find Williams splitting Bauer and Washington.
With frustration mounting and fouls growing more brutal and flagrant by both sides, the half came to a merciful close.
It feels like a disturbing trend that Atlanta United 2 has consistently emerged from the locker room at half-time on the back foot. The team looked awkward, unsettled, and seemed to have lost the spark that fueled their dominant first-half performance.
The second half was all Birmingham.
For the first time with the 2s, Rocco Ríos Novo looked like a teenage goalkeeper as he got caught in between a punch and a catch, letting what should have been a routine catch get poached by Mikey Lopez to put Birmingham ahead. That shakiness spread to the rest of the defense who forgot how to play for a moment, allowing Junior Flemmings to increase the lead to three goals to one.
The flat-out pace of the first half continued, but in the second half, the 2s scampered about in desperation, trying to regain possession from sloppy turnovers and mental errors. The team lost their composure and the substitutions of both Diops, Mejia, Fortune, and Noah Cobb could not do much to change that.
Remarkably, the team’s best 10 minutes of the second half came after the 90th minute and the final sub entered the match. With Cobb now positioned as the middle of a 3-man backline, the 2s threw everything forward with 6 teenagers running the show. Wolff, Mackey Diop, and David Mejia led the attack, while Jay Fortune and Abdoulaye Diop held down the midfield. With this group, the team earned their first corner of the match in the 91st minute and created a sustained attacking possession around and through the Birmingham 18-yard box that failed to produce a goal.
So the match came to a close in a disappointing fashion. The team ran out of gas, lost composure, and frankly looked like a MLS 2 team for the first time in a while. They may not have won every match, but they have very rarely fallen flat on their faces as they did in the second half. But do not despair (too much). If the first half is any indication, the coaches will walk away with plenty of positives to reinforce and plenty of errors to teach through. The key will be for this young group to rebound and they won’t have to wait long to shake this stink off of themselves.
Next up, the 2s return home to face the Indy Eleven. Indy has largely underperformed in 2021 but they have also played fewer matches than most of their Central Division rivals. They will be a dangerous foe for the 2s and a fun match to watch. Check them out this Sunday at 7:30 pm at the Fraction or on ESPN+.