After suffering a frustrating loss to the Birmingham Legion just a few days ago, Atlanta United 2 traveled down to the southern Texas town of Edinburg down near the Mexico border to take on former teammate Baboucarr Njie and the Rio Grande Valley FC Toros. This was the first time the two clubs had ever played each other in their brief history so both teams were looking to put their claim to what may be the only time the teams would ever meet. Both clubs started the match sitting in sixth place in their respective division and both teams desperately needed full points from the match to keep their post-season hopes alive.
Coach Collison started the match with a lot of changes to this starting eleven. To counter the disciplined and zonal high press that RGV plays, Collison threw out a 5-3-2 formation meant to stretch RGV by building out of the back and exploiting room to run through the exposed lines. At the back, David Mejia got a rare start, this time at left wingback. Bradley Kamdem Fewo, Noah Cobb, Bryce Washington, and Aidan McFadden rounded out the defense from left to right. Robbie Mertz, Jay Fortune, and Brendan Lambe were tasked with anchoring the midfield and creating opportunities to link up with Mackey Diop and Darwin Matheus up top. Rocco Ríos Novo returned to goal after having the last match off.
Both sides opened the match showing exactly how they wanted to play. For RGV, they were going to pin the 2s to their backline through a disciplined and relentless high press that would use high energy and physicality to disrupt any passes or runs through the lines. Meanwhile, the 2s were going to play out of the back with restarts beginning at the top of the 6-yard box between Noah Cobb and Ríos Novo. The 2s would possess the ball along the backline and try to find Fortune or Lambe in the midfield to stretch RGV into overcommitting while opening up runs downfield for Matheus and Mackey Diop.
These tactics for both sides were a big gamble with both sides needing full points from the match-up. In the opening minutes, the gamble seemed to be paying off for the 2s as a long ball from McFadden found its way to the feet of Mackey Diop. Without wasting time or trying to outrun his defender, Diop picked up his head, saw daylight, and fired a shot along the ground through three defenders and past the keeper to the back post.
In the 30th minute, RGV found their equalizer as the Toros played pinball around the box and off of the post to find the back of the net.
The equalizer fired up the Toros who continued to pin the 2s deeper and deeper against their touchline. They were playing with confidence and a kind of recklessness that only seems to work when it is the other team mauling your players. The 2s were doing themselves no favors either as heavy touches, errant passes, and slow decision-making led to the team’s lowest time of possession for a half in a long while.
To their credit, the 2s never gave up as the same fire that fueled many of their previous come-from-behind performances seemed to flow through Rocco Ríos Novo as he stood like a wall against a flurry of shots.
Inspired by his goalkeeper, Darwin Matheus and Robbie Mertz decided they wanted to share in some of the glory. You can always tell when Robbie Mertz grows weary of defending because he dives headfirst into his mark and either ends up flat on his rear or in a dead sprint downfield with the ball at his feet. This time, he stayed upright and found Matheus streaking down the left flank into the box.
6️⃣th goal of the season for Darwin Matheus! pic.twitter.com/rH8Ril5rdg— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) September 26, 2021
And so hope sprung eternal in Atlanta for a few brief minutes.
Perfect way to end the first half. Keep it up, squad pic.twitter.com/VijADjnXDt— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) September 26, 2021
The 2s emerged from the locker room with a substitution and a new formation. After picking up a knock in the first half, Josh Bauer entered the match for Noah Cobb. Cobb had played well so his removal was likely precautionary. The team lined up in a more familiar 4-3-3 with Mejia sliding up into the wing and Bradley Kamdem Fewo moving to left-back.
The new formation nearly worked as the 2s burst out of the gate hungry for another goal. They nearly got it as Darwin Matheus whipped a tantalizing cross from the right flank to the forehead of Mackey Diop, but Diop second-guessed himself and redirected the wide-open header wide of the back post.
Seconds later back on the other end, RGV settled into place for a corner kick. This had been a physical match with lots of what a camp counselor may refer to as jostling and tom-foolery. The 2s may have been thinking about that and were thus distracted when Diz Pe out-leapt them all to show Mackey how to finish a header.
The 2s refused to be brought down that easily. Jay Fortune’s tenacious pressure in midfield paid off less than a minute after the restart as he stole the ball in the attacking third and charged towards the top of the box with Mackey Diop and Darwin Matheus running ahead as options. He picked out a perfect leading ball to Matheus who saw how narrow his window was and instead chose the wide open through pass to Mackey Diop who had instead chosen to stop his run.
Back to the other end of the field, where a brutal American football-style collision put Bryce Washington flat on his back. The replay showed a vicious blow to Washington’s head and potentially a second shock as he hit the ground. Luckily, Washington was able to rise to his feet but was visibly disoriented and unsteady on his feet as he was helped off of the pitch. We wish him a safe and smooth recovery from what looked to be a nasty concussion.
Phillip Goodrum immediately entered to replace Washington, slotting in at right-back with McFadden moving out to the left.
The challenging feat of salvaging a draw, much less a win, became that much more daunting.
The 2s continued to play with passion, skill, and determination but were unable to breakthrough. Part of that was luck, but a big part of that was the antics and relentless fouling of RGV every time the 2s tried to build anything in the midfield.
I have two words for how RGV played the rest of the second half.
The fouling is bad, but it was largely dealt with by a referee who had a flawed but consistently flawed night. The part that grew tiresome was the ghost injuries that began to appear around the 78th minute.
Here is a dramatic reenactment of the Toros’s goalkeeper.
A few minutes later...
Before the match concluded, Mathis Benitez entered for Mackey Diop and Connor Stanley entered for Brendan Lambe. Stanley’s entry to the match moved Matheus to the midfield where he played brilliantly as a box-to-box attacking presence who could shred defensive pressure and create set pieces from being hacked down in the final third. He looked like Barco in the best way possible.
Otherwise, there isn’t much left to talk about since the frankly embarrassing display by the Rio Grande players stymied anything resembling a match for the final 15 minutes of regulation and whopping 7 minutes of stoppage time.
Tough battle in Texas. Back at home Wednesday. pic.twitter.com/ZLOJEM3l5R— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) September 26, 2021
A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS
- Darwin Matheus was yet again a standout player in this match. He is dangerous up top as a forward, outside as a wing, and in the middle as a midfielder. He gets under the other team’s skin and picks them apart with pinpoint passing that is far above this level of play. He is still young and undersized so he will need to be more intelligent with his possession to not get physically bullied by larger and less talented opponents but he has shown enough to get a promotion to the first team over the winter. He could end up being a revelation for us playing a similar role to Barco.
- Two players who were greatly missed tonight were Caley Wiley and Chris Allan who just successfully underwent surgery for his hip injury. Allan’s ability to calmly control the midfield and pick out diagonal passes would have devastated this Toros team as would Wiley’s presence on both ends of the left flank.
- After the match, Coach Collison provided some great perspective that he is giving his players about how meaningful the upcoming matches are regardless of whether the team goes to the playoffs or not. “I think it’s now a real opportunity for us to have a look maybe more towards next season, so it might be more opportunities for the younger players, who have been doing well and training well. And also the boys who are contracted, it’s going to be a big five games for them because, obviously, they are going to try to secure a contract next year. Despite the recent results, despite what happens now and the end of the season, there’s an awful lot to play for individually and collectively. We played great at times this year, so we don’t want to let the season just fizzle out.” There are quite a few of these players we would like to see return next season and we will discuss that in a future recap of the season.
- Finally, we greatly undervalue our broadcast team. Holy s%*&. RGV’s broadcast team’s background research on Atlanta United 2 seemed to be the team’s Wikipedia article and the in-game commentators seemed to have as much soccer knowledge as an Alpharetta Dad. They managed the continuously confuse some of our players (most notably Fortune, Kamdem Fewo, and Washington). Frankly, I’m glad we are done having anything to do with that franchise.
Next up, the 2s return home for their final match at the Fraction in 2021. They will take on the division-leading Louisville FC on Wednesday in what will likely not be a pretty match if Louisville is gearing up for their post-season run. Kickoff is currently scheduled for 7:30 pm and the match will be aired on ESPN+.