Extracting positives from a tough night in Costa Rica

Mike Conti
February 22, 2019 - 4:33 pm
Atlanta United's Pity Martinez in CONCACAF action in Costa Rica

© Eric Rossitch-ATLANTA UNITED

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This is not the way Atlanta United envisioned opening their MLS Cup defense.

Less than 11 weeks after the Five Stripes defeated Portland Timbers, giving Atlanta its first Championship parade in more than two decades, they fell flat in their CONCACAF Champions League opener Thursday night in Heredia, Costa Rica, losing to C.S. Herediano 3-1.  Atlanta United looked like a club that had not played in months.  Herediano looked like an experienced side that took full advantage of the 12 league matches they played prior to meeting the MLS Champions.

Without trying to sound overly optimistic, I feel the 3-1 scoreline was a bit misleading.  Herediano was absolutely the deserving winner on Thursday.  But they were able to take advantage of some rare miscues by Atlanta United, while the Five Stripes were stymied on chances on which they usually capitalize.

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After Atlanta United conceded the third goal of the match in the early moments of the second half, they had three opportunities to cut into the deficit and maybe even steal a result.  But Josef Martinez was not able to bury a header, Darlington Nagbe had a beautiful shot saved brilliantly, and Tito Villabla hit the post right before the death.  If any one of those three shots go in, Atlanta United’s path to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals is much more clear.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those three chances came after Darlington Nagbe was introduced into the match.  Nagbe, who missed portions of training camp in California, spoke of his need to regain the trust of his teammates and the technical staff.  It appears as though it didn’t take long for that to happen.  Granted, the match had a different feel after Herediano went up 3-1, but it felt like Nagbe was a problem solver for Atlanta United on a night where they were having trouble connecting passes in the midfield.

Had Atlanta United stolen a result, I think Miles Robinson would have been the Man of the Match.  Frank de Boer obviously sees Robinson as an everyday starting center-back for this club, based on the fact that he started every one of Atlanta United’s preseason friendlies in that spot.  Robinson did well to work back in transition to provide cover defensively, passed the ball accurately, and also proved to be a target on set pieces.  Robinson has the benefit of playing for a former center-back in de Boer, and it feels like he could be poised for a very big year of growth.

Atlanta United is not out of the tournament yet, but the margin for error next Thursday night in Kennesaw is exceptionally thin.  Playing in front of a friendly crowd will help, as will playing on a hybrid natural/artificial surface.  It looked to me that Atlanta United struggled to deal with the rock-hard artificial surface in Costa Rica, which Jason Longshore accurately described as “friction-less.”  Herediano also must play a league match on Sunday while Atlanta United gets the benefit of a full week of rest.  It is not impossible to get a 2-0 win at home on Thursday.  Unfortunately, anything other than that is trouble.​