Though it was no thing of great beauty, it will look lovely enough for Atlanta United as they board their flight home.
The Five Stripes scrapped and clawed their way to a 1-1 draw vs. Motagua in Honduras in the first leg of their Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 series, soaking up a few punches and riding their luck in a place that’s been an absolute graveyard for US and Canadian teams over the decades.
The MLS club overcame no small amount of adversity to earn the result; here are a few observations from ATLUTD’s San Pedro Sula job.
ATLUTD sidestepped potential disaster here
Motagua are based in the capital city of Tegucigalpa. But stadium standards issues led to this one being moved a five-hour drive down the road in San Pedro Sula, where anyone who’s paid any attention to Concacaf World Cup qualifying over the years will recall how nightmarish Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano can be for even the most talented visitors. And other circumstances conspired to make this even more of an ambush situation for Atlanta.
Calling them shorthanded in this match doesn’t really do the situation justice. Miles Robinson, George Bello and Edgar Castillo are injured. Newcomers Matheus Rossetto and Jake Mulraney are waiting on visa paperwork. So coach Frank de Boer had to patch together his starting XI and only had enough bodies to suit up six substitutes instead of the usual seven.
The back four in particular was… unconventional. Right back Franco Escobar had to slide out to the left corner as defensive midfielder Mo Adams deputized in his usual right back slot. Anton Walkes is typically a right back or wingback but he stepped in at center back here, with another new arrival, debutant Fernando Meza, alongside him as the only defender in his usual role.
With this being their season opener to boot, gaps and missed assignments were always going to pop up. And so it was when Adams got caught upfield on a quick transition in the 34th minute, allowing Roberto Moreira a clear path to thump Felix Cristanto’s cross past goalkeeper Brad Guzan for the opener:
This kind of development often rings panic bells in SPS. But ATL boast something most teams in that situation don’t…
Josef Martinez is a cheat code
How many times has the steely Venezuelan bailed out his team over the past three years? The Goal King of the South needed barely a minute to respond to Moreira's strike, exchanging a few quick passes with Pity Martinez to carve open Motagua’s defense and coolly stroke a low finish inside the far post to equalize.
If you’ve watched him in MLS, you know that Josef doesn’t need a volume of chances to find the net, and that clinical skillset and mentality is utterly priceless in these high-stakes tournament situations. It’s the most sought-after (and expensive) quality in world soccer and all too often it’s been the missing ingredient for MLS teams trying to break the league’s long history of woe in CCL.
Frank de Boer said that Josef Martinez was ill ahead of tonight’s match. Questionable a day ago.— Felipe Cárdenas (@FelipeCar) February 19, 2020
That was Josef’s “flu game.” #ATLUTD
Lots can go wrong in these settings, even for really good teams, and so it was for Atlanta, who were second-best in possession terms on this night and conceded plenty of opportunities to their hosts. Guzan was called on to make five saves and he stepped up, providing a veteran’s calm at the back to complement the rifleman’s menace of Josef up front.
Vindication for De Boer?
Plenty of voices, this correspondent’s included, have expressed puzzlement at the changes the Dutchman has made to the high-octane MLS Cup-winning team he inherited from Tata Martino. De Boer has often seemed to prize a sterile kind of match control over the pulse-quickening assertiveness of his predecessor, and it remains to be seen whether it can power the Five Stripes back to the MLS mountaintop.
The scruffy stalemate in Honduras won’t go into the Ajax legend’s greatest hits collection. But he might just point to it as the kind of occasion where his preferences come in handy.
Lots of work still to do but a battling, gritty performance on the road from the lads!— Darren Eales (@DEalesATLUTD) February 19, 2020
Looking forward to being back in front of our amazing 17s next week!#UniteAndConquer #ATLUTD https://t.co/U0biok3Zpk
Atlanta had to ride out the storm at times, and manage the match’s tempo. They were smart enough to make that job easier for themselves by limiting risks, drawing or committing fouls at key moments and keeping their composure far from home. It helps when a couple of your best players have done all this before in even hotter cauldrons in the Copa Libertadores, and the squad’s holdovers likely recall the harsh lessons of their CCL experience a year ago.
They’ll need to conjure up at least a few flashes of their old explosiveness to be sure of the result they need to advance next week. But with Josef already off the mark and intimate Fifth Third Bank Stadium likely to be rocking with red-and-black faithful, that looks eminently doable.