Last week was the book end of a storied 2021 season for Atlanta United 2.
A campaign riddled with debuts, career performances, broken records, and jaw dropping comeback will be remembered for all of those things. But beyond that, we’ll remember it for the intangibles—the air around The Proving Ground, the fearless attitude of this collective and the feeling that any given match was theirs for the taking.
Now, we take a step back and reflect on an exhilarating 7 months.
Set the scene...
In 2020, the 2’s along with the rest of the soccer world were forced to carry on in the absence of the most important piece of the puzzle—the fans.
This season, the 17s would make their return. But several familiar faces from the last season did not, including former head coach Stephen Glass. Taking his place was Tony Annan, longtime Director of Atlanta United’s Academy—but only on an interim basis with a head coaching job at the University of South Carolina awaiting him in the Fall.
In the end, the number of players returning to the Atlanta United 2 roster would amount to just four–Abdoulaye Diop, Bradley Kamdem Fewo, Amadou Macky Diop and Phillip Goodrum.
Since its inaugural season in 2018, Atlanta United 2 has served as a development platform for Atlanta United’s talent pool.
A steady rotation of Academy players looking to test themselves in the professional environment and First Team players looking to crack the lineup would make up part of the squad as it usually does.
The remainder of the roster was filled out with a number of international acquisitions: Darwin Matheus, M (Zamora FC); Rocco Ríos Novo, GK (on loan from Lanús); Connor Stanley, M (on loan from Manchester United; Matías Benítez, F (on loan from River Plate); USL signings: Robbie Mertz, M (Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC); Alex Garuba, F (Oakland Roots); and standouts from the college ranks: Chris Allan, M (University of Charleston in West Virginia) and MLS Super Draft pick Aiden McFadden, D (Notre Dame).
In short time, this relatively new group would need to establish an identity, gel and hit the ground running with three matches on the road to start the season.
A warm welcome back to the Proving Ground
After taking four points from their first three matches, the 2’s were ready to make their return to The Proving Ground and the 17s were ready to receive them for the first time since September 23, 2020.
On May 19th, they put on a show that was well-worth the wait.
Chris Allan scored his first professional goal to open the floodgates against FC Tulsa. 5-0 was the scoreline, the largest margin of victory to date for the team.
It was a statement game that put the league on notice. This Atlanta United 2 was going to be dangerous.
'It’s Aiden McFadden!’
After that emphatic victory, the word was out about Atlanta United 2's ability to play an aggressive, attacking brand of soccer, but the question now was whether or not they could respond in the face of adversity.
In match No. 5, the first of four meetings with Memphis 901 FC, they answered.
In the 87th minute, they trailed 2-1. Then, Jack Gurr—now at Aberdeen FC—received a red card which felt like the nail in the coffin of a frustrating night.
Stoppage time rolled around, and with nothing to lose, the 2’s threw everything forward. In the 93rd minute, the unlikeliest of breakthroughs came.
Another moment of brilliance from Aiden McFadden salvaged a point against a top team and earned him his first USL Championship Player of the Week honors.
It was the first, but surely not the last time we’d hear Jason Longshore shout that name in the depths of stoppage time.
Changing of the guard
On June 3, Atlanta United 2 announced that Jack Collison would take the reigns as head coach.
With over 70 appearances for West Ham in the English Premier League and two years of experience coaching in Atlanta United’s Academy, Collison brought a wealth of knowledge to the table. But this would be his first test coaching at the professional level—a new challenge for the then 32-year-old from Watford.
His pedigree as a mentor and motivator for this young group was evident from the start. He came into the job having already built a strong rapport with the Academy players in the fold. Now, it was a matter of cultivating relationships with the older players on the team.
A fluid roster, at times in the past, was a hurdle for Atlanta United 2. An unsteady lineup can make the Implemention and execution of a system of play difficult. But that isn’t much of a factor when the philosophy and spirit of the club are the same at every level.
Atlanta United 2 is the perfect litmus test for how well the club is living up to the ‘One Team. One Club.’ mantra.
In Jack Collison’s USL coaching debut, that mantra came to life. 16-year-old Academy left back Caleb Wiley connected with MLS Super Draft pick Aiden McFadden, while on the other end of the pitch, Alec Kann came up with a crucial late penalty save to keep the clean sheet.
Can’t count them out
Just over a month after their comeback victory in Memphis, the 2’s found themselves trailing 2-0 in the home leg. A chippy first half culminated with Matías Benítez and Memphis’ Mark Segbers getting sent off.
Another Memphis goal could have put things out of reach. A second half goal from Atlanta United 2 could turn the match on its head.
Danial Sebhatu, one of 5 Academy players to make their USL debuts in 2021, stepped up to the plate in the 54th minute to make it 1-2.
The guys carried on fighting, but time continued to work against them. The 70th minute mark passed...then the 80th...then the 90th.
Then Darwin Matheus picked up the ball, went on a winding run through the Memphis defense, eventually getting taken down in the box, just as the referee was getting ready to blow the whistle for full time.
After that tremendous effort, the fate of the game rested in the hands of the Venezuelan midfielder.
He made no mistake.
Another reminder the we could never—not even in the dying moments of a match—count this Atlanta United 2 team out.
After a tough stretch of games on the road, the 2’s returned home to take on FC Tulsa for the first time since that unforgettable home opener.
It was a chance to bounce back as a team, but with some reinforcements returning to the fold.
Abdoulaye Diop and Phillip Goodrum, two key contributors to last year’s campaign, made their return after sustaining injuries early in the season.
They’d help the 2’s to a 2-1 victory, with goals from Macky Diop and Ajani Fortune, as well as a momentous, first half penalty save from Rocco Ríos Novo.
Back on the road
On July 31st, it was time to visit our noisy neighbors in Birmingham. Despite the looming threat of rain delays, the weather held up and the guys went to battle on a sopping wet BBVA Field.
They continued to embrace adversity, perhaps even relishing in it.
It was Aiden McFadden who found the back of the net in the first half, adding goal No. 6 to the right back’s already impressive tally.
But the lead wouldn’t last long. Birmingham clawed back and the 2’s found themselves on the brink of defeat in stoppage time.
Stoppage time became Darwin Matheus time, again!
August 8th was a day we won’t soon forget. And we can be assured Atlanta United Homegrown Tyler Wolff won't either.
From the sound of the first whistle, the press was on. And who else to lead the pack than Wolff.
12 seconds of work was all it took to find the opening goal, the quickest in team history.
But the buck didn’t stop there. 5 minutes later, he was on the board again, and by the 50th minute, he had put the team up 3-0 with his first professional hat trick.
Darwin Matheus got in on the action and, as the saying goes, there’s no party without Macky Diop. He made it 5 before David Mejia grabbed the 6th, matching the team record for most goals scored in a single match.
It was a statement from the team: If you don’t bring your best to The Proving Ground, it’s going to be a rough night...
At the death!
By August, the word was out. The 2’s could hurt you at any time, whether it’s the 1st minute of the match or the very last.
At home against OKC Energy, it was the latter, with David Mejia putting on the hero’s cape this time.
After the match, Jack Collison told media, “We talk about character, talk about resilience with this group all the time. That’s the fifth time this year that they’ve come from behind.”
One Last Ride at the Proving Ground
The Proving Ground more than lived up to its name in 2021.
It was the stage for a number of professional and USL debuts, some moments of pure brilliance and some unforgettable nights. But above all, our haven, tucked away in the corner of Kennesaw State’s campus was the home base for a young team with relatively little USL experience to go toe-to-toe with seasoned professionals.
The very last home match of the season saw one of those seasoned teams pay a visit. As they walked up the stairs and out of the tunnel for the final time, it was clear that the 2's had one thing on their minds—go out with a bang.
After anchoring the ATL UTD 2 backline for the majority of the season, Josh Bauer was the first to strike blood, scoring his first goal for the 5-Stripes just before the half. The Proving Ground was the stage for yet another career milestone.
Louisville answered early in the second half, setting the stage for a 40-minute slug fest. The game was open. The chances came thick and fast for both teams. But when it was all said and done, neither could find the goal.
It wasn’t the result the guys hoped to close out the home schedule with, but they set quite an example for the U-12s in attendance.
This picture from the moment they shared after the match says it all.
McFadden won’t be stopped
Just when we thought he might be slowing down, Aiden McFadden added his seventh of the year with this wonder strike against Indy Eleven, tying the single-season goalscoring record for Atlanta United 2.
Whether it was simply being in the right place at the right time or deadly technique, it was clear that the Atlanta United 2 rightback was an, albeit unlikely, threat in front of goal.
There was plenty of season left for the 23-year-old to find that record-breaking goal. But after 94 minutes of play, he’d shock the Indy crowd and everyone watching back home with a goal that marked another signature comeback for the 2’s and a new single-season goalscoring record for Atlanta United 2.
Win or lose, up the 2s
With their final three games of the season all on the road, the 2’s playoff hopes were officially put to rest in Memphis.
Through it all our fans represented the 5-Stripes and the 2-Spikes with everything they had. Some even put it in ink, making a lifetime commitment to ATL UTD 2.
Without them, it’s hard to say how this season would have gone. But the players, coaches and staff were more than happy to have them along for the ride.
A time for reflection
At the conclusion of the season, head coach Jack Collison took to social media to share some thoughts on his first professional season as a manager.
“Having to say goodbye to my career at such a young age as a player, there was always a worry that the love my slowly die,” Collison wrote. “If anything, this season has not only reinforced that love, but has enhanced the desire, drive and fire within to be the very best at what I love to do.”
Collison also thanked the players, staff and fans for all they gave to the campaign.
His sign off captured the sentiment for all of us.
“Bring on 2022.”