Atlanta United's CCL run and season ends but club sees reason for optimism for 2021

Jackson Conway - Atlanta United - celebrates vs. America

After a woeful season that fell short of their young but ambitious club’s expectations in just about every way, Atlanta United brought their 2020 to a close with admirable defiance in Wednesday’s Concacaf Champions League win over Club America at Exploria Stadium in Orlando.

The 1-0 result was well short of what was required to turn over Las Aguilas’ hefty three-goal aggregate advantage from the first leg some nine months ago. But given what’s transpired in that time, this is at least something for those involved to hang their hats on.

“You look at the fixture going into the game, they were up 3-0, right, and so they know that we’ve got to score three goals to force penalties and four goals to advance, and so they're also playing the game with that in mind,” said a realistic Brad Guzan postgame, noting that the Five Stripes put themselves in the same daunting situation against Monterrey in last year’s CCL.

“With that being said, it certainly was a good performance from our end.”

Highlights: Atlanta United 1, Club America 0

With America looking uncharacteristically passive – their overall display on the night was heavily criticized by Mexican media – Atlanta seized the initiative. They could well have made things interesting with several clear chances that went begging in the first half, and their favored opponents had to lean hard on the excellent goalkeeping of Guillermo Ochoa after the break.

Designated Player Marcelino Moreno was lively when he entered off the bench, at least until he was baited into a red-card offense, kicking out at Santiago Naveda after the latter clattered into him from behind in injury time, and the enigmatic Ezequiel Barco showed moments of real quality as well.

It was about the best the current squad could do to leave a positive impression heading into the offseason as ATLUTD prepare for the arrival of a new head coach, widely reported to be respected Argentine Gabriel Heinze.

“It looks like there's a new manager coming in. I don't know when that’ll be, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be soon,” said interim boss Stephen Glass, the coach of their USL side ATLUTD 2, who’s been running the first team since the dismissal of Frank de Boer after the MLS is Back Tournament in July.

“One of the things we've put to the players tonight is, I'm sure if there’s a new manager coming in, that he’s going to be watching this game. So this group of players had the first opportunity to put themselves at the front of his mind when he’s picking the team next year. They’ve certainly done that tonight.”

When teenage Homegrown Jackson Conway – the second team’s leading scorer in the USL Championship this year, signed to an MLS deal just two weeks ago – scored the game’s only goal in the late going, it provided not only a moral victory on the night, but perhaps a glimpse of a younger, more academy-driven future for Atlanta and a feather in the cap for Glass and his staff.

“I think the staff here has shown that we're capable of preparing a team,” said the Scottish coach. “I’m proud of the team. They did everything that we asked of them. We spoke yesterday about the first thing being, can we win the game, which we did. We knew it was going to be very, very difficult.

“I'm proud of the players, I’m proud of the team, and I'm pleased for them, that they have put themselves in a good light moving forward.”

In just a few weeks the Five Stripes will reconvene for preseason with a new coach and possibly with a number of new faces on the roster. For the holdovers, the plan is to make sure – with words and actions alike – that everyone knows what this club was before this “crazy year for everybody,” and get back to those heights quickly.

“We want to come out and show what we're all about and what we can be about and play with passion, play with intensity, play with commitment and desire,” said Guzan. “Every time we put the shirt on, this badge on, we have a duty to our fan base, to the city of Atlanta, that we need to turn up and we need to give everything for this ship. And that's not something that is just a given right, that is a certain expected level of a club like Atlanta United and tonight I think we were worthy of that.”