Atlanta United 2 welcomed Lawrence Wyke and the Tampa Bay Rowdies back to the Fraction in yet another challenging match-up against old Eastern Conference rivals. The Rowdies currently lead the Atlantic Division and entered the match on an eight-game unbeaten streak. The 2s entered the match in fifth place in the Central Division with their eyes fixed on the final playoff spot. With the end of the season in sight and their final home match fast approaching at the end of the month, every point counts for this ascendant 2s team.
Erik López made his Atlanta United 2 debut as part of a forward trio with Mackey Diop and Darwin Matheus. Robbie Mertz lead a defensive-minded midfield alongside Abdoulaye Diop and Jay Fortune, and Mikey Ambrose returned to the 2s defensive backline lined up next to Bradley Kamdem Fewo, Josh Bauer, and Bryce Washington. And finally, Rocco Ríos Novo retained his role between the sticks.
Jackson Conway, Brendan Lambe, and Aidan McFadden began the match on the bench alongside Philip Goodrum, Connor Stanley, Vicente Reyes, and a newly-returned Mathias Benítez who has battled injuries over the last month.
Tampa Bay came out of the gate intent on pressing high and denying the 2s any hope of making anything happen on a soggy and rainy night. The 2s looked tired, out-classed, and disjointed and the best team in the USL-Championship made them pay for it.
The first goal of the night came just 90 seconds into the match as Wyke found himself running free through the left side of the box with his eyes on goal. Wyke’s shot past Fortune was saved but Ríos Novo spilled the ball at the post allowing Sebastian Guenzatti to put the 2s in a hole early.
After scoring the early goal, Tampa dropped into a midfield press, content to allow the backline of Bauer, Washington, and Kamdem Fewo to waste precious minutes circulating the ball back and forth from Fortune on one side to Abdoulaye Diop on the other. Whenever the 2s began the probe the center of the field or beyond the center stripe, there was an immediate tackle or challenge often resulting in a turnover.
It took nearly 20 minutes for the 2s to begin to create opportunities. In the 19th minute, Robbie Mertz forced a turnover in the midfield, threading the ball to a previously-invisible López who combined beautifully with Matheus at the top of the box to create a shot that flew high over the bar.
Seconds later, a quick restart by Rocco Ríos Novo up the left flank to Lopez found Matheus behind the defense. Matheus looked up to see Fortune crashing the back post and whipped a pinpoint pass to get it there, but Fortune whiffed on the ball that spun harmlessly out for a throw-in.
Highlights began to pick up at both ends as Sebastian Dalgaard juked Mikey Ambrose out of his corporeal form to open a free shot from the penalty spot. At nearly point-blank range, Josh Bauer threw his body in the way to deny Tampa their second goal of the half.
As the intensity of the match picked up, so did the physicality with yellow cards piling up for each team. Bets were being taken in the stands as to whether a goal or a punch would come first on the pitch.
Those who staked their farms on a goal went home bittersweetly counting their earnings as in the waning minutes of the match Guenzatti found the back of the net for the second time. It seemed that the ball rolled for an eternity in slow motion from the foot of Dos Santos past the 2s and into the back of the net. The moment marveled everyone, especially Bryce Washington who was so mesmerized he forgot to clear the ball.
And so the teams went to their locker rooms with Tampa having punished the 2s in the opening and closing seconds.
We keep fighting in the second half. pic.twitter.com/h5ZxycFPmm— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) September 19, 2021
The second half consisted of many more yellows, missed chances, stifling defending by Tampa, and an overall gritty performance that netted nothing but experience (I guess) to the 2s.
Connor Stanley and Jackson Conway were the first two substitutes of the night, coming on for Erik Lopez and Mackey Diop in the 67th minute. Philip Goodrum came on for Jay Fortune in the 75th minute. And finally, Aidan McFadden and Mathis Benítez entered for Mikey Ambrose and Darwin Matheus in the 79th minute.
Goodrum and Conway combined well and created the best chance of the second half when their one-two play in the 85th minute created a strong shot from Conway that was saved. Goodrum tried to put away a challenging rebound but it went wide of the far post.
And so the match ended without much fanfare. Even when the 2s were trying to press the ball forward in the waning minutes of the match, the Rowdies were so disciplined in their shape that the 2s were often left standing over the ball looking for any opening possible. Those openings did not come and the 2s joined a growing list of teams contributing to the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ USL record stretch of play without conceding a goal.
Not our night.— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) September 19, 2021
A chance to bounce back on Wednesday ⚫️ pic.twitter.com/Vde2Ubxl9U
A FEW THOUGHTS
- This was a match that Erik Lopez needed to do something impressive in. It is debatable whether he did enough to move the needle as his place in the team’s depth chart becomes more tenuous following the addition of Luiz Araujo. Lopez was largely invisible until he began dropping deeper to help build up play on the flanks around the 20th minute. This move added dynamism to the team and gave Darwin Matheus a creative partner to work with but the two of them were largely unable to do much. But to their defense, the entire team looked bad tonight.
- I am very confused by Mackey Diop. Mackey is a highly athletic player capable of creating chaos for opponents but that wild style of play has done more to confound himself and his teammates than the other team this season. For now, he is more of a liability when the other options are Connor Stanley, Mathias Benitez, and Philip Goodrum. I hope he can turn it around because he is so much fun to watch when he is in control of his own chaos.
- I am more interested in how this team responds Wednesday night against Birmingham. If this team is truly a playoff team, they need to brush this game off and bring their youthful determination and zeal to the next match.
Next up, the 2s try to right the ship and continue their quest for their first-ever playoff appearance as they take on local rivals Birmingham Legion at the Fraction on Wednesday night. The match will begin at 7:30 pm local time and will be broadcast on ESPN+ if you are unable to attend in person. This is the second to last chance to see the 2s at home this season so do not miss your chance to see the next generation of Atlanta United soccer take the field.