Gabriel Heinze enjoyed a dream start to life as Atlanta United head coach, grabbing a 1-0 road win at Alajuelense in their Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 first leg.
Heinze's men found themself on the front foot in the opening stages of the contest in Costa Rica but showed signs of a team that were still learning the ins and outs of the first-year head coach's system — in comparison to an in-form and in-season Los Leones side.
And the visitors saw a great chance go begging in the 14th minute as Barco's diagonal pass in the box found its way to Lisandro Lopez, but the former Porto, Lyon and Racing Club man was unable to time the touch correctly to open the scoring. Alajuelense, for their part, failed to give Brad Guzan a heavy challenge in the first half until just past the half-hour mark as Adrian Martinez found plenty of space behind the right side of the defense, forcing the Atlanta goalkeeper to leave his area to snuff out the chance. Later, in the 39th, Emerson Hyndman tagged one just inside the box that was turned aside by Leonel Moreira.
But the game took a sharp turn moments before the half as a sliding tackle by Guzan outside the box was first ruled a yellow card before being elevated to a red by referee Hector Said Martinez. That not only meant Atlanta were down to 10 men, but it meant the debut of 18-year-old Rocco Rios Novo, signed on loan to Atlanta United 2 from Lanús in March and inked to a four-day short term agreement on Monday with regular backup Alec Kann recovering from injury.
Atlanta, though, took the lead inside of the first five minutes of the second half following a tight penalty call against Alajuelense, with Barco stepping up to the spot and barely sneaking it to the right of an outstretched Moreira to open the scoring. Later, Rios Novo passed his first test with a big save just before the hour mark as the hosts looked to level it on a free kick.
And the young keeper would continue to keep the hosts at bay to ensure that both he and Heinze enjoyed a debut to remember.
- 50' - ATL - Ezequiel Barco (pen.) | WATCH
- THE BIG PICTURE: This one defined CONCACAF: Guzan's red card late in the first half would have forced Atlanta to both play a man light the rest of the way and shift their tactical approach to keep the tie within reach. But the talk will be the penalty awarded to Atlanta early in the second half that was ruled to come off the arm of an Alajuelense defender in the box. And with one strike from the spot by Barco — the subject of plenty of offseason discussion — the Five Stripes take a valuable away goal with them to next Tuesday's 2nd leg, albeit without their No. 1 goalkeeper and captain.
- MOMENT OF THE MATCH: The red card against Guzan is certainly a turning point, but the penalty awarded to Atlanta loomed larger as it led to the game's first and only goal. And Barco took just enough of it to squeeze it past Moreira, who guessed right but ultimately came up empty.
- MAN OF THE MATCH: Atlanta fans will hope that Heinze is the one to finally get the best out of Barco in the 22-year-old's fourth season, and this was certainly a positive start as, in addition to the penalty conversion, he found himself very active throughout the evening.
- ATL: Tuesday, April 13 vs. LD. Alajuelense | 6 pm ET, FS1 | Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 Leg 2