Why was Leg 2 different for Atlanta? Matt Doyle, Bobby Warshaw discuss

Ezequiel Barco - Atlanta United - Close up
Atlanta United FC vs. Herediano - Game Highlights

Highlights: Watch the best moments of Atlanta United FC 4-0 victory over Club Sport Herediano #SCCL2019 #ATLvCSH

Posted by Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League on Thursday, February 28, 2019

Atlanta United overcame the first mini disaster in their club’s history, defeating Costa Rican club Herediano 4-0 in a Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 second leg on Thursday night. The result helped Atlanta advance to the quarterfinals thanks to a 5-3 aggregate-goals win.

The Five Stripes started quickly, scoring two goals in the first 10 minutes. Josef Martinez got the first after an Herediano mistake and Julian Gressel tagged on a quick second with a gorgeous outside of the foot finish to the far post. Darlington Nagbe returned to the lineup in place of Jeff Larentowicz, while Brek Shea won the left back spot over George Bello.

Matt Doyle and Bobby Warshaw put their postgame conversation onto (digital) paper.

BW: Welp.

MD: It was pretty one-sided, literally from the first minute.

BW: Here’s my thought to try to explain the difference in performances between the two legs — Atlanta’s new style under Frank de Boer is methodical, and requires coordinated actions. It’s difficult to execute coordinated movements if you don’t have control of the ball; it’s difficult to get control of the ball on a poor surface. The playing surface in Costa Rica wasn’t great — not to take anything away from Herediano — who played an excellent game at home and thoroughly deserved the win. Atlanta could never truly get control of the ball. Consequently, they couldn’t get control of the game, and Herediano were a better team in the hectic, open game.

Return to the cleaner playing surface, and the game turns back in Atlanta’s favor.

MD: I’d also add there were a couple of good adjustments in terms of personnel and tactics. Nagbe was much better than Larentowicz, and 2019 Comeback Player of the Year (candidate) Brek Shea was much better than Bello. Personnel matters.

As for the tactics part, I think it was as simple as getting the wingbacks forward earlier in possession so that Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco had options when they got on the ball.

It wasn’t huge, it wasn’t drastic, but it literally led to the first three goals.

BW: You keep talking tactics, and I’m trying to tell you that there’s no point in talking tactics if you can’t get the ball under control — tactics involve planning a couple steps ahead, and you can’t plan if you don’t have control of the ball.

But you’re right that personnel matters. Nagbe might be the player in MLS most capable of gaining control of possession in a messy game. That will become more important than ever for Atlanta as they transition toward a more possession-focused game plan. Nagbe was unsettled about his situation in the offseason; he made a strong statement that he's vital to the team Thursday night. It’s nearly impossible to say he won’t be vital to De Boer’s system.

MD: So the crisis lasted all of one week, and now it’s back to normal: Atlanta look every bit like an alpha team in this league. They’ll maybe have a few more bumps in the road – especially early. But they’re fine.


BW: They’re definitely fine. But I’m going to throw out a line that’s been with me all preseason for ATL: They will be better, but less amazing; more dominant, but less effective.

What they could do on the break last year was unreal and unstoppable. It supersedes almost any other specific tactical advantage I’ve ever seen in MLS. Miguel Almiron was the catalyst. Pity and Barco, for all of their abilities, aren’t Almiron in the open field. I expect the Five Stripes to be better in a lot of aspects, but I don't think they will be as good on the break and they can’t replace that.

MD: Early bumps, then. But this is still one of the best teams in the league, and officially one of the eight best in all of Concacaf. Onto the quarters, where Mexican giants Monterrey awaits!