Voices: Sam Jones

Three takeaways as Atlanta United clinch win over Alajuelense

Atlanta United are through to the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals. They didn’t do it in style. That’s OK.

Here are three takeaways from a fun night in Kennesaw, Georgia.

The end product should come, but it might take longer than expected

There were moments. Especially at the beginning of the game. It looked like everything might click. Marcelino Moreno provided a spark after missing leg one and it seemed Atlanta may just hit a gear they hadn’t in Costa Rica. After 90 minutes though, their only goal came by accident.

No one could reasonably expect this Atlanta team to come out full force from the very beginning of Gabriel Heinze’s tenure. But you might wonder how long it’s going to take to get there. In a similar manner to last week, the ideas and theories and building blocks are there, but the experiment hasn’t resulted in answers.

Finding the back of the net honestly seemed like the biggest worry for this team coming into the year. Josef Martinez and two of his backups at striker, Lisandro Lopez and Cubo Torres, were the only ones on the team to have more than four goals in a season at a first-division level. Which means Atlanta would need someone to step up on an individual level to supplement the attack or the system would have to carry the burden. Wildly early days here, but neither has happened. You’ll know this team is fully functional when it does.

And it should. Because on TV and in person, the system itself is gorgeous. The concentration on line-breaking passes, the spacing and the extreme width mean Atlanta are constantly trying to find and exploit space. It’s especially apparent when you watch the interplay and triangles formed between the fullbacks and wingers.

The width of the wing players allows fullbacks to get central and when you have fullbacks with the attacking qualities of George Bello and Brooks Lennon, it means you're going to create out wide. Before Atlanta reined them in as the game went on, they were consistently finding space on the wing and near the end line. They didn’t create the chances they would have liked from those positions, but get there enough and those chances will come.

Lennon summed it up nicely after the game.

“These are our first two games of the season so we need a little more time to gel. We are creating chances, but it’s tough when you’re playing, especially on the road in Costa Rica and I thought they played a very counter-attacking style of play and sat back and it was kind of tough to break them down,” he said.

“I think we’re getting chances. We just need to be able to play a little more together and we’ll score more goals. We are creating chances which is the most important part.”

You have to wonder if they really need to create too many chances though when ...

The back line is really good. It’s about to get better?

Miles Robinson and Anton Walkes once again put in a shift. They were under far less pressure this time, but brushed aside every single thing Alajuelense threw at them with ease. Like sumo wrestlers deflecting an attempted tackle from a featherweight.

Bello also looked extremely solid. His positioning in the second half especially appeared to be much improved. Where he got burned a bit last week, he steadied things this week. His counterpart Lennon also performed well, but his work came more on the attacking end. Lennon’s motor is unreal though and you know he’d at least have the legs to make things happen if more got asked of him defensively.

All of this is bolstered by Santiago Sosa. Sosa didn’t get the chance to be as much of a factor going forward tonight, but he continues to impress with his positioning in the midfield, his tenacity and his ability to be a safety valve in midfield. It’s not all stellar all the time. But the upside is clearly enormous. And his skill set is so necessary for an Atlanta United team that desperately needed solidity in the midfield after 2020.

Now Atlanta are set to add a DP center back to the mix in Alan Franco. If you’re trying to give your attack some time to find some cohesiveness, knowing you have a solid chance to pull out a clean sheet every time out will go a long way. There won’t be many teams with more talent at the back than Atlanta this year and that will be crucial as Atlanta go through some growing pains.

Orlando ain’t scared

There’s a dadgum brawl happening on Saturday (3 pm ET | UniMás, TUDN, Twitter). For the first time in the history of the rivalry, both Atlanta and Orlando are going to put forward teams the fans and the folks around the league believe will be among the league’s best. Atlanta dominated this rivalry for the first three years and then fell off the edge of the world just in time for Orlando to figure out how to play soccer.

The game should be a tangled mess of bad sentiments, tribalism and entertainment in real life and even more so on the internet. As a viewer, I can’t wait. For Atlanta, it means we’ll see this team get tested by a group with high-end talent for the first time. It might be the best attack that Atlanta backline faces all year in the Eastern Conference. Especially at winger.

However, it also may be the kind of wide-open game that gives this Atlanta team a chance to find themselves in the final third. Alajuelense were content to sit back and hit on the break throughout the tie. It won’t be the same in Florida.

This game is going to be … well, something to see at the very least. Just hoping everyone makes it out unharmed physically. Even if they don’t make it out emotionally. Yes, I’m only kind of talking about the players.