The new nightmare when playing against Liga MX teams is the one that's been on display thus far throughout this tournament. It's the one where you play well – arguably better than your opponents – for long stretches of the game, and are even dominant at times, but never turn that dominance into goals, let alone an unassailable lead.
And then in the final 10 minutes whoever it is you happen to be up against shifts directly from third to fifth gear, finds the smallest seam, and punishes you. Portmore United tasted it, and Alianza tasted it, and Comunicaciones tasted it in the previous round. New York City FC tasted it earlier on Wednesday night.
But don't forget about the old nightmare, one that we've all seen so many times over the past dozen years. The old nightmare has less suspense but more inevitability and dread: You give up an early goal, and then just don't stop giving up goals until the whistle blows.
That's what happened to Atlanta United late Wednesday night in their 3-0 first-leg loss to Club America at the Azteca. The hosts scored early on a golazo and then after a breakdown, and then again late in the first half off a corner kick. That was the goal that probably put the tie to bed before it was even a quarter done. The whistle blew at halftime and the nightmare was over but the damage it had done was very, very real.
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Here is the simple truth: If you're missing your best player (Josef Martinez) and your second-best player (Miles Robinson) to injury, and another starting defender (Franco Escobar), and the back-up defender you signed to fill in for those defenders, and a couple of your new midfield signings aren't ready yet, and neither is your new center forward signing, you're going to have to juggle a few things. You're going to have to take some risks.
Atlanta manager Frank de Boer settled upon two. One was starting veteran midfielder Jeff Larentowicz at center back, and the other was going to a low-block 5-3-2 with both Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez as dual false 9/playmakers.
None of the above worked. Larentowicz – who has played CB admirably in the past, including and especially during Atlanta's run to the 2018 MLS Cup – got worked (as did Fernando Meza, it must be said), and neither Pity nor Barco had any influence upon the game until they had a center forward to play under, at which point it was already 3-0.
The idea I'm getting at here is not that Adam Jahn's absence from the start caused this loss. Jahn is certainly not a match-winner in and of himself. The idea is more that Atlanta had/have a system and a formation they use (mid-block 3-4-2-1), and had been playing relatively well.
Disrupting that system this early in the year in a game of this magnitude added unnecessary complications to a team that was already in flux. Said complications proved to be more of a risk than those inherent to playing their preferred style in the first place.
And so they got whupped. Credit to the players, all of whom really did continue to fight right up until the final whistle, and let's all hope that Matheus Rossetto, who was stretched off, is ok.
But yeah, you need good luck and good health to beat the best teams in the region. So far in 2020 Atlanta have neither as a couple of different nightmares have converged upon this club. It's pointless to take the analysis of this game much beyond that.