I’m not going to sugarcoat this for y’all. This was an ugly game.
Atlanta United 2 welcomed their local rivals the Birmingham Legion back to the Fraction for the last time in 2021 in what felt like a must-win match for a 2s team hunting their first-ever playoffs berth. With just one of their next six matches at home, the 2s needed to get a result against a team that has historically dominated their head-to-head series. Tonight needed some magic and Jack Collison threw out everything in his bag of tricks to try to salvage a result.
Collison fielded a young and high-powered attacking formation that looked something like a 5-3-2. It was high-risk and potentially high-reward with Jackson Conway and Erik Lopez at the match up top and Darwin Matheus beginning the match at left wingback. The midfield remained the same with Robbie Mertz, Abdoulaye Diop, and Jay Fortune lining up in a defense-first group to counter the Legion’s prolific midfield, and Collison turned to a veteran defensive corps of Bradley Kamdem Fewo, Josh Bauer, Bryce Washington, and Aidan McFadden ahead of Alec Kann to round out the line-up. If the club could force an overload on the left flank during turnovers, they thought they may be able to surprise Birmingham.
The team also welcomed Nigel Prince, the brilliant U-19 defender to the bench for his first appearance of 2021.
Things looked disjointed and chaotic early with neither team adhering to anything resembling a cohesive shape. It was just two groups of guys sprinting up and down the field at each other. Some of that chaos was facilitated by the central referee who woke up before the match and chose insanity. Physical play was called inconsistently and time-wasting went largely unchecked.
Early on, the battle for the midfield leaned heavily in favor of Birmingham with a stellar overall performance by Jay Fortune being the only thing that kept it from looking even more lopsided. Everyone in attendance felt the opening goal coming but it was more of a question of “when” than “if”.
In the 17th minute, a speculative blast by Thomas Vancaeyezeele took a bad ricochet off of Josh Bauer past Alec Kann to open the scoring. It was the kind of play that should have been defended or saved, but luck was not on Atlanta’s side tonight.
The opening goal ended Collison’s tactical experiment while also lighting a fire under the team. Now playing something closer to a 4-3-3, the 2s began pounding on the door in search of an equalizer. As the clock passed 25 minutes, Jay Fortune, Robbie Mertz, and Darwin Matheus all found themselves squared up on the ball with eyes on goal but each of their efforts flew wide of their mark.
In the 43rd minute, Erik Lopez came alive after struggling to find his way into the run of play. After receiving the ball in space, he charged into the box and played a beautiful ball across to Conway who was crashing the penalty spot, but some hard defending by the Birmingham captain Phanuel Kavita neutralized the threat.
And so the first half ended with some glimmers of hope for the 2s.
Darwin Matheus came out of the locker room looking for a goal. In what was the most impressive performance on the night for any Atlanta United player, Matheus ranged all over the field creating chances for himself and his teammates, forcing fantastic saves by the Legion’s keeper.
Still just a goal away, Collison injected some attacking energy into the match in the 61st minute with David Mejia and Mackey Diop entering the match for Abdoulaye Diop and Jackson Conway. Conway had a decent match and had a few moments of good distribution as the main center forward but his partnership with Lopez never materialized into a consistent threat for the 2s.
Just seconds after the substitutions, Darwin Matheus charged towards the touchline on the right flank. He looked up and found Lopez who slid the ball up top for Mejia. Mejia juked a defender and placed a pinpoint pass to the feet of Robbie Mertz at the back post, but Mertz’s point-blank shot curled just wide across the face of the goal.
After yet another missed opportunity, Lopez began to force the ball and tried to do too much. After briefly turning the ball over when caught by surprise by a sublime Matheus backheel in the box, Lopez lost the ball a second time in the midfield to lead to a full counter by Birmingham. The Legion thundered down the field, calmly and confidently moving the ball from one runner to the next until the ball reached the feet of right-back Jon Dean. Dean fired a shot but it was saved by Kann and cleared by Fortune.
Moments later, another defensive lapse led to a double save by Kann against Nico Brett.
With the field flipping back and forth, Matheus caught the Birmingham defense upfield and dropped a perfectly weighted ball to the feet of Mackey Diop at the top of the Legion box. Diop rocketed a bouncing volley directly at the keeper who held on for another save.
Now approaching the 78th minute, the 2s were throwing everything forward in search of an equalizer. Mejia collected the ball in midfield and found Matheus on the right flank. Matheus saw Lopez and Diop crashing towards goal and Matheus whipped yet another superb ball into the box, but Lopez whiffed the header forcing an impressive recovery save by the keeper to keep the cross itself from getting past him.
That was the 2s last opportunity at salvaging points.
Up popped the keeper, down the field they went, and in the span of a few seconds, Nico Brett made the score 2-0 in favor of Birmingham.
With the season on the line, Collison threw in his final subs, Mathias Benitez for Bryce Washington and U-19 star defender Nigel Prince for Josh Bauer.
Before the subs could even introduce themselves on the field, Birmingham blitzed them up their left flank and added a third goal.
At this point the team was playing for pride and despite giving up a 4th goal, most of the academy kids stood tall and played their hearts out including debutant Nigel Prince who roared into challenges in the air and on the turf with the kind of authority that is rarely seen in a young player.
And so the match mercifully ended.
A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS
- Darwin Matheus was an easy choice for Man of the Match for me this week. Matheus has developed into a force, playing at a high level as both a goal-scoring and creative threat. The club must be thrilled by his growth over the course of this season and his prospects going forward for the first team.
- Mejia and Fortune also deserve a lot of praise tonight. Mejia remains a dynamic and game-changing force off of the bench. Last season I referred to him as a Tasmanian devil based on his relentless ferocity and constant movement on the pitch. While he retains a lot of those same admirable traits, he is a far more refined and mature player than in 2020 and has grown into an intriguing option in the club’s attacking midfield depth. Fortune has also grown into yet quite a compelling player. He still has a lot of room for refinement but his athleticism, toughness, and growth as a player point towards a bright future for himself and the Trinidad and Tobago national team program.
- Last match we talked about Erik Lopez and whether he can turn his development around with the 2s. That is still possible but it may be too late in 2021. Lopez showed some improvement in this match with a few good chances but it is very clear how rusty he is from his lack of minutes over the last few months. Lopez needs these minutes and needs to do more with them to make the club feel comfortable with him being an option going forward.
Next up, the 2s travel to South Texas to face the Rio Grande Valley FC Toros on Saturday the 25th. Like last week, the 2s will be the follow-up to what looks to be an exciting match-up for the first team. This is the first time, to our knowledge, that the 2s have faced Rio Grande Valley FC so it will certainly be one to watch as the 2s continue their pursuit of the final playoff spot in the USL’s Central division. The kick-off is scheduled for 8:30 pm EST and will be aired on ESPN+ with the home team providing the play-by-play.