So, I don’t know if any of you noticed because you were all watching Josef Martinez and the Brazilian pitmasters smoke FC Cincinnati Wednesday night but there was another game going on in the rain further up the interstate.
BUT, before we get into the recap of that match I’ve got to address the elephant in the room.
It has been a while since we’ve done these 2s recaps together. Full transparency, I’ve been away doing my main job, a job that lets me spend my free time writing about soccer. Now, after being cut off from all things Atlanta United for nearly a month, I have one question:
What’d I Miss?
I’m excited to say, “quite a lot”.
Machop Chol scored a big goal, Aidan McFadden scored a few more goals, Brendan Lambe and Noah Cobb have become ascendant players, Jay Fortune earned himself his first professional contract with the 2s, and for the first time in their history, the 2s are in the hunt for the play-offs.
Now, on a rain-soaked night at the Fraction in Kennesaw, Georgia, Atlanta United 2 took on their oldest of rivals the Charleston Battery. This is the first time these two teams have met in 2021 after being assigned to different regional divisions in the USL Champion’s Eastern Conference. The Battery is consistently a tough and well-drilled team under long-time skipper Mike Anhaeuser who switch between an aggressive 4-3-3 at home and an extremely tough 4-4-2 on the road designed to control the center of the pitch. For a young team in the midst of their first realistic playoff hunt in their short history, the 2s were in for a big test.
Coach Jack Collison ran out a lot of familiar faces the included a mix of MLS Reserves, veterans, and young talent. Up top, homegrown forward Jackson Conway paired up with Mackey Diop just ahead of Robbie Mertz. In the midfield, Collison called on the stout duo of Abdoulaye Diop and Brendan Lambe. The defense lined up as Mikey Ambrose as the left wing-back, Bradley Kamdem Fewo, Noah Cobb, and Bryce Washington as the centerbacks, and Aidan McFadden back at his right wing-back position. And in goal, Rocco Ríos Novo retained his rightful play between the sticks.
This was Noah Cobb’s 4th start of the season for the 2s and this time would be as the central defender tasked with absorbing and mirroring the large and shifty Nicque Daley and Claudio Repetto.
The match began with the kind of early intensity one would expect from both teams. Charleston sought to dominate the center of the field early and often while allowing the 2s to run the flanks and whip in crosses. The 2s were dissatisfied with being shoehorned into just play on the flanks and dropped Conway and Mackey Diop into the midfield to aid in build-up play early and often.
The 2s also brought out their favorite weapon under Collison, their relentless high press. Like many teams with a history of strong possession and disciplined build-ups, Charleston favors building their possession out of the back. After training under Frank De Boer and Gabriel Heinze, Jackson Conway felt that he had seen enough of that and pounced on an early errant pass between Charleston’s centerbacks and buried his shot to open the scoring.
Now up a goal, the 2s shifted their approach to one of domination of the ball and stretching of the Charleston lines to create space for runners. This can be a risky approach as we have seen time and time again that requires expert ball control and positioning by the central defender and icy calmness under pressure from the central midfielder. Intriguingly, these were the two youngest players on the field in Noah Cobb and Brendan Lambe. Lambe often looked mature beyond his years in acting as the release valve from Charleston’s intense pressure and Cobb did his best Josh Bauer impression in deftly smothering Charleston’s larger and more experienced attackers.
The first real excitement for Charleston came around the 35th minute. After bravely making two key headers to clear the ball on a Battery corner, Washington attempted to play a short pass to an unaware Brendan Lambe. Lambe turned around too late forcing a turnover and a strong save from Rocco Ríos Novo. Minutes later, Novo dove on another ball, this one a bouncing shot towards the back post off of the head of Repetto.
Despite looking inferior to the 2s in the first half, the Battery looked like they still had a goal in them as both teams went into the half with the 2s ahead by a goal.
The second half began with Josh Bauer entering for Bryce Washington. Guest color commentator Jeff Larentowicz suggested that the substitution may have been planned ahead of the match as a means of managing minutes and had less to do with Washington’s yellow card and right knee knock from the waning minutes of the first half.
The 2s opened the second half with the same high pressure that earned Conway his first goal. Just moments into the half, an errant pass found its way to Robbie Mertz who whipped a pass across the Conway on the opposite end of the box. Conway collected the ball and volleyed it directly at the Charleston keeper who easily gloved the shot.
The high pressure continued to frustrate Charleston as the 2s comfortably controlled the pressure through the first 60 minutes of the match, but that took its toll. The fatigue began to show early and so the little mental mistakes and a clear bit of curse of the announcer from Jeff Larentowicz found Charleston in an excellent attacking position with the ball at the feet of Scottish international Robbie Crawford. With the 2s disorganized ahead of him, Crawford picked out right-back Angelo Kelly who rocketed a shot past Ríos Novo to even the score.
In the 64th minute, Collison made his second round of substitutions of the match, rotating Jay Fortune and Darwin Matheus for Brendan Lambe and Jackson Conway.
Matheus brought his own personal brand of chaos to the match, nearly creating three scoring chances in his first minutes on the pitch when combining with Mikey Ambrose on the left flank.
In the 66th minute, Matheus redirected a pass from Ambrose to the feet of Mackey Diop who juke across the face of the goal and was denied by a heroic block by a Charleston defender.
In the 71st minute, Mikey Ambrose found Matheus just on the sideline sprinting free down the left flank. Using his speed, Matheus rounded the defender and chipped the goalkeeper in what could have either been a shot that went just wide or a brilliant pass that was just ahead of the back post run. Either way, it was another beautiful chance from the young dynamo.
After taking a few seconds to swap Connor Stanley for Robbie Mertz, Matheus was at it again, once again feeding a brilliant pass to the feet of Mackey Diop who was too ambitious with his cutback and wiped out on the wet pitch without offering a shot.
Meanwhile, Abdoulaye Diop was playing the match of his life. After getting an early yellow, the holding midfielder cleaned up his play and pestered the Charleston midfield all night with crunching tackles and interceptions. Despite not offering much with the ball at his feet, he is a sturdy defensive presence that was instrumental in the midfield battle.
Speaking of defensive presences, Atlanta United 2s was at times playing with 4 centerbacks on the field. Before you get too confused and check to see what I forgot to mention, the 4th centerback was our trusty goalkeeper Rocco Ríos Novo. With the overloads on the flanks, Ríos Novo shifted up the pitch next to Cobb to form an unusual centerback pairing that allowed Kamdem Fewo and Bauer to push further up the pitch. Remarkably, this seemed to work as the nimble netminder continued to show his competence and confidence with the ball at his feet.
The final substitution of the night came in the 86th minute as Phillip Goodrum entered for Mackey Diop. This was a frustrating night for Mackey Diop as he disappeared for long stretches of the match and failed to control the ball enough to finish any of his ideas in his rare moments of possession.
As the final minutes of the match wound down, the story became about the exhaustion of the starters and the balance of momentum between each club’s substitutes. Despite Matheus’s red hot entry to the match, the 2s subs failed to outdo their counterparts in controlling the flow of the match but neither side was able to land the killing blow.
A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS
- Man of the Match will be split between the goal-scorer Jackson Conway and the young defensive phenom Noah Cobb. Conway got back to his scoring ways with the kind of poacher’s goal that resurrected Tyler Wolff’s confidence a couple of months ago. Cobb played a complete match in nearly every way in just his 4th career start at the professional level with only a couple of noticeable mistakes. At 16, he looks the part as a tenacious and crafty defender with the positioning and athleticism to take him far. Atlanta United is becoming a factory for talented defensive prospects and Cobb should be counted among them.
- Honorable mention goes to Rocco Ríos Novo and Mikey Ambrose who played phenomenal matches in both the defensive and possession phases of the match. Ambrose looked dangerous and dynamic as the left wingback and showed that he still has something to offer above the USL level. Ríos Novo continues to impress in goal and with the ball at his feet and should be counted on as a serious future option in goal for the MLS team if Atlanta United can find a way to work their salary cap magic to purchase him from Lanus.
- Finally, a point is a point, but three points would have been better in the packed race for a playoff spot in the central division. The 2s are now tied with Indy for 5th place at 29 points and just one point behind the Oklahoma City Energy at 30 points with a month left to play.
Coming up next, the 2s continue welcoming their brutal gauntlet of regional rivals to the Fraction with the Tampa Bay Rowdies coming to town on Saturday. The match will begin at 7:30 pm local time and will air on ESPN+.