Image courtesy of Dirty South Soccer
Atlanta United lost the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinal against the Philadelphia Union by a score of 3-0 on Tuesday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Based on the scoreline, one might think that this was a completely and utterly dominant performance from Philadelphia, but the most frustrating part of it all from an Atlanta United perspective is that it was anything but. Atlanta started the match with fantastic energy and success. There were chances left and right, including a Jurgen Damm one-v-one with Union keeper Andre Blake. Blake came up big here, as he did throughout the match en route to seven saves and a clean sheet. Emerson Hyndman, Marcelino Moreno, and Josef Martinez were other Atlanta United players who came close to finding the scoresheet in the first 45, but close was just not good enough. Atlanta United conceded a few half-chances in the first half, but for the most part, was the dominant side in the scoreless beginning of the match.
The second half was where things fell apart. What had worked for Atlanta United in the first half led to their demise in the second. With dynamic personnel on the pitch, Atlanta United played in an ever-shifting formation. The number of players on the backline was unclear, with players like George Bello, Franco Ibarra, and Santiago Sosa all over the pitch. The only clear members of the backline were Miles Robinson and newcomer Alan Franco. It was this movement and dynamic play from the backline and the squad as a whole that made tracking runs and defending Atlanta United difficult for Philadelphia in the first half. Unfortunately for Atlanta United, when they had the advantage, they did not make it count. In the second half, Philadelphia did take advantage of Atlanta United’s free-flowing football. There were multiple communication errors along the backline and huge gaps left in the United defense. Atlanta’s own movement was too much for even them to keep track of. It was from these mistakes and issues at the back that the Union found their three goals, which included a brace from Kacper Przybylko and a goal in the 86th minute from substitute Anthony Fontana, which transformed the hole Atlanta United had found themselves in into a 10-foot trench, looking ahead to the return leg next week.
Although hope of advancing through to the semis for Atlanta is very, very bleak, there were some positives from Atlanta United. The first half was exciting, intense, exhilarating play from Atlanta. On the ball, they were crisp, and when possession was lost, they were quick to put pressure on Philadelphia. Atlanta will need to learn how to finish off the great moves they make, especially when Josef Martinez is not playing a huge part in matches, as was the case on Tuesday. For Tuesday’s match in Philadelphia, the Union will be missing Jose Martinez, who picked up a yellow very early on and will be suspended due to accumulation. Still, Atlanta will need to win by three goals to advance, and a scoreline of 3-0 will only get them to a shootout. It is an arduous task, especially considering that Atlanta was just trying to build a solid platform to advance on Tuesday and pushed far enough forward to where they conceded three times. Now they’ll need to score three of their own but still manage to protect at the back while doing so. If the Atlanta United from the first half off the first leg shows up next Tuesday, maybe, just maybe they can pull off the impossible, but if the Atlanta United from the second half of the first leg shows up, then it will surely be another quarterfinal exit for the Five Stripes. One thing is clear: it was quite the disappointing night at the Benz and a far, far too familiar feeling for Atlanta United in the first leg of a CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinal.