Atlanta United veterans wary of Concacaf Champions League challenge

MARIETTA, Ga. — Two days before the club’s inaugural participation in the Concacaf Champions League against CS Herediano in Costa Rica, Atlanta United team leaders faced the media and admitted their trepidation in navigating the tricky tournament.

“Concacaf is a beast,” team captain Michael Parkhurst told media Tuesday. “People that aren’t used to it think that it should be easy for the US to qualify, for US teams to go to Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and beat teams easily. It’s just not the case. These guys, when they play against MLS teams, when they play the US teams, they play the best games of their life.”

American soccer fans are fully aware of the national team’s recent failures competing in these Central American stadia, but Parkhurst’s words look even more prophetic after Toronto FC’s4-0 meltdown on the road in Panama against Independiente de la Chorrera Tuesday night.

“They play with passion. They play with pride,” Parkhurst said of the clubs from smaller nations in the competition. “If you play on grass, it’s thick. If you play on turf, it’s hard. Usually the hotels aren’t great, and it’s just not what you’re used to in the US.”

For anyone thinking there’s no way what happened to Toronto could happen to Atlanta, Parkhurst said to think again. Atlanta United expect an uncomfortable game on a hard artificial surface with small dimensions — not very conducive for slick passages of play.

“If you don’t adapt and you’re not mentally into it and focused, then you can get beaten,” said Parkhurst. “It can happen to us as well. We can go down there and lose. It’s definitely a possibility. But that’s where the preparation and the mentality and the experience of this group hopefully carries us through.”

One of those leaders will be Jeff Larentowicz, who’s experienced the bumps and bruises of playing in the CCL. In 2008, his New England Revolution side lost 4-0 on the road in the preliminary round to Trinidadian club Joe Public. In 2011, he had better luck with the Colorado Rapids, as they mustered a 1-1 draw against Real España in Honduras and beat Isidro Metapan in El Salvador but were crushed on the road against Santos Laguna in Torreon.

“Tactically, we watched film on them today, but first and foremost what we need to be ready for is the intensity of the team, the intensity of the crowd and the difficulty of traveling to another country and playing on their turf, no pun intended,” said Larentowicz. “We discussed it this morning. The staff brought it up as well. Though we’re not all Americans we travel as an American team. You travel to somewhat hostile environments where teams are looking to beat you and prove themselves. That’s the mentality you have to be prepared for.”