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Atlanta United’s first leg vs Alajuelense: What we learned

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Image courtesy of AJC

Atlanta United played its first competitive game under Gabriel Heinze and of the new season and did not disappoint. Coming away with a gutsy 1-0 road victory, here’s what we learned.

CONCACAF REFS ARE NOT VERY GOOD

We start off with one that we didn’t really learn. We already knew this, but wow, was it glaring in Tuesday’s game. I don’t like to talk about referees too much, but I will point out two instances where viewers across the world probably just muttered under their breathe “Concacaf.” 

First, Brad Guzan was sent off in the 43rd minute on a challenge that was most likely a red card. However, the way the ref went about giving the card was really strange. The ref initially reached into his pocket and pulled out a yellow card. He was seconds from giving the yellow to Guzan, but a swarm of Alajuelense players crowded around him, arguing the decision. The ref walked over to the player who was tackled and on the ground injured, all while still holding the yellow card in his hand, and then seemingly randomly changed his mind and gave Guzan a red card. I have no idea what prompted him to change his mind in such a crucial decision. It could’ve been for a valid reason, but given how it happened, it definitely makes you question the situation.

Second, the penalty kick awarded to Atlanta United for the eventual only goal of the game in Ezequiel Barco’s penalty was quite simply put, a terrible call. George Bello put in a cross from the left-hand side, and while the defender’s arms were flailing in an awkward position, the ball clearly hit off the defender’s face. It never should’ve been a penalty.

HEINZE IS DIFFERENT THAN DE BOER

Shocker. Many would agree Frank De Boer played boring soccer. The teams that played under him would possess without a purpose. While this is the first game under Heinze, it was already a lot more promising. You could guess it would be this way, given that Heinze signed younger South American talents this offseason.

Atlanta United lead Alajelense in possession and created plenty of chances in the first half when both teams had 11 men. They were playing the Cosa Rican champions, who were on a 25-game unbeaten run. Atlanta looked the better side and was the team more likely to score a goal. Now, of course, when they went down to ten men, they weren’t the same team, but what they did wasn’t any less impressived. You could argue that the team fought for the three points with more heart than we’ve seen since the Tata Martino days. They looked like they cared and looked like they wanted to win. Most importantly looked like they felt like they could win. A lot of credit should go to Heinze for the success after losing a man. We’ll see how his tactics develop throughout the season.

SOSA IS BIG FOR THIS TEAM

Santiago Sosa is the player who stood out most in the Atlanta United team on Tuesday. The player this team has missed the most since their Championship season is Darlington Nagbe. He was vital to the success of the team as the glue that held the team together. He would be the player to connect the defense and midfield. There’s definitely a connection between the Columbus Crew winning last year and Nagbe being on the team.

Last year one of Atlanta United’s biggest problems was that connection between the defense and the midfield. Sosa brought that yesterday. He played in a really interesting position that saw him play in the middle of the back three when out of possession, but in a deep-lying midfield position when in possession. It was a brilliant tactical move by Heinze. Sosa was everywhere. He was winning balls back, making passes everywhere on the field, and doing all the dirty work necessary to win. 

With how he played yesterday, you can see why Heinze and company were okay with letting Jeff Lawrentowicz go. Sosa, without any disrespect to Lawrentowicz, is a younger and better option to play a very similar position. 

Early signs point to Sosa being close to what Atlanta United hasn’t had since Nagbe’s departure. If that’s the case, he’ll become a fan favorite in no time.

SPACE BEHIND THE BACKLINE IS STILL A WORRY

Last year the defense looked appalling. One of the biggest struggles was the ball in behind. The backline would get outpaced more often than not, and they would rarely catch opposing players offsides. They found themselves caught in no man’s land way too often. Tuesday was different.

The team played a high backline that pressed throughout the first half when they weren’t a man down. This did leave opportunities to play in behind the backline, but more often than not on Tuesday, the backline caught Alajuelense attackers offsides, which is a very good sign. Even when the team was down to ten men, they were still confident enough and disciplined enough to catch opposing attackers past the last defender.

While this was a strong first showing and could be a sign of things to come, it still means the space in behind the backline is the biggest worry defensively. If an attacker times his run correctly, there isn’t much you can do. However, it’s a risk teams are willing to take when playing a high line. 

A GUTSY FIRST GAME OF THE SEASON, ESPECIALLY FROM ROCCO RIOS NOVO

At the end of the day, this was one heck of a performance from the five stripes. That was about as good of a performance you can ask for as the first game under Heinze. The only negative was one bad pass from Barco, causing a bad tackle and a red card for Guzan. The replacement, however, in Rocco Ríos Novo, made history with the most saves in a Concacaf Champions League game by an Atlanta United goalkeeper with six. (Brad Guzan had 5 against Motagua last year) 

Rocco Ríos Novo was signed on a four-day contract from Atlanta United 2 just to back up Guzan for this game. He made the most of the chance that came his way, though, with important saves to keep Atlanta’s one-goal lead. 

Atlanta United fans should be excited after this first-leg win. Not only because they won, but because of how they did it. It was gutsy, exciting, and fun soccer.

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