I’m not entirely sure what happened but there are few new sensations here. First off: Atlanta United won. That’s not quite the norm over the last year.
Feel like we should acknowledge that. And then there’s ... everything else totally bizarre about Atlanta’s 1-0 over Alajuelense.
There’s the fact that they did it with 10 men for 65% of the game. There’s the fact they became just the eighth MLS team since 2012 to win on the road in CCL. There’s the fact that an 18-year-old emergency goalkeeper who signed a four-day contract just to be there came in and made a team CCL record six saves. There are so many facts and feelings and everything in between its kind of hard to process. But we’re gonna try.
Here are three takeaways from a beautifully absurd game from the world’s most totally normal soccer competition.
An imperfectly perfect start for Gabriel Heinze
You can obviously separate this into parts BRRN and ARRN (before and after Rocco Rios Novo), but there are takeaways from both. In the parts BRRN, the narrative centered around Atlanta’s bold decision to simply look competent. It’s hard to overstate how difficult they were to watch last year. To see a team come out and look energetic, engaged and somewhat assured is a confidence builder in itself for the team and the fan base.
You can tell this is a team that knows what the end result of each idea should be but is still learning how to execute it. Even just a sliver of growth potential would have been encouraging but instead, you got a little bit more than that. Not a clear window into the future, but a vision of a future where all the counter-pressing, consistently formed triangles and outlets to full backs in acres of space result in an attacking threat and entertainment value more consistent with the ethos of the club.
New head coach Gabriel Heinze hinted at the idea of process over results on Monday and the process appeared to be working. What’s truly unexpected is that the result came too.
Atlanta United would have loved to sneak away back stateside with a draw in hand even if they had 11 men on the field. For the team to stay together, create the chance that led to the “handball" in the box, and scrape out a win with 10 men is an outright accomplishment against the best team in Costa Rica under any circumstances, not just for a team learning to believe in their new manager’s philosophy and tactics as well as their new teammates.
It’s some Mighty Ducks-lookin storyline and the team should be about mid-montage confident in their abilities after that one. It feels like a stepping stone towards something bigger if they can see things out next week.
There were two players in particular who Big Media has pegged for needing big years under Gabriel Heinze. The first is Miles Robinson. And really even the center back position in particular after Atlanta struggled throughout the offseason to get a new man in to partner with Robinson. That being said, Robinson and fellow center back Anton Walkes did the dang thing in this one. Miles in particular felt immense, comfortable on the ball when asked and a crucial piece for Atlanta as they kept an improbable clean sheet.
Of course, he was aided by 18-year-old emergency keeper Rocco Rios Novo. Rios Novo has been penciled in as the starter for Atlanta United’s USL affiliate this season. The plan obviously didn’t involve the kid appearing in a Champions League game or really any first-team game this season. That got thrown out after just 40 minutes and he only went and made six saves. Some were right at him, some he positioned himself well, but I know that I, at 18 or any age, would have simply ducked out of the way of the ball. He’ll be a cult figure in Atlanta for the next few months or so.
Then there’s Ezequiel Barco — the other player in need of a massive jolt under Heinze for his, and the team’s, future. He ... well, honestly it seemed at times in this one that he looked intent on speedrunning the best and worst parts of his time in Atlanta. As soon as everyone remarked how confident he looked, he played the silly back pass that led to Brad Guzan’s DOGSO red card. He converted the penalty later and did well at times on the ball and extremely poor at others. He mistimed a few key passes. He also busted his rear end the entire time. I’m not sure what to make of Zeke’s night but I know that Atlanta fans will be happy to see him move centrally once Marcelino Moreno resumes his presumed position on the wing in the second leg.
Oh, and some guy named Josef Martinez showed up for about 20 minutes too. The game state didn’t really allow for him to get chances. But after almost 14 months, man it felt good to see him.
That’s not even mentioning the excellent shift put in by Santiago Sosa, who looked incredibly comfortable in his role dropping into the back three in possession and spreading passes around. Honestly, don’t have enough words to praise everyone on the team, but a lot of folks should be happy with their first appearance.
The Essence, ya know?
There are two key parts of what has made Atlanta United
Atlanta United: The first involves a high-energy, high-entertainment team that plays on the front foot and looks to score, even if that’s at risk of allowing a few risky situations for the backline. We saw parts of that tonight. Again, not the whole thing back in full force, but hints that it could return in some capacity and sometime soon.
The other part basically boils down to having good things happen to you just because you’re you. That went away last year as Atlanta looked like a shell of themselves. In part, it looked like it might continue with the red card tonight. But on top of being a team, who let’s face it, really didn’t truly earn a spot in the competition in the first place, they picked up a penalty almost by force of will ...or maybe just a little luck. They could have cowered away after the card though. They didn’t. They got rewarded twofold.
Atlanta United aren't “back” in either sense. But if Atlanta fans were looking to use tonight as any sort of barometer for a potential return to matching the high standards set by the club’s first two seasons, they should feel content that an offseason of optimism feels just a little more validated. Even if it’s only just a little.