It’s only halfway through the matchup, but it was a tough start for Atlanta United in their opening Concacaf Champions League campaign Thursday, falling 3-1 on the road to Costa Rican champions CS Herediano in the first leg of the two-legged knockout round.
Frank de Boer lined up his side much as he has for much of the preseason, with Miles Robinson maintaining his start in the middle of the back line and Pity Martinez making his much-anticipated debut in the forward line. He opted for youth over experience on the flank, with Atlanta United Academy product George Bello starting at left wing back. The full XI: Brad Guzan (GK), Leandro González Pirez (CB), Miles Robinson (CB), Michael Parkhurst (CB), George Bello (LWB), Jeff Larentowicz (CM), Eric Remedi (CM), Julian Gressel (RWB), Ezequiel Barco (FWD), Josef Martinez (FWD), Pity Martinez (FWD).
It was a tense start with both teams testing each others’ defenses in the early minutes, but with just seven minutes on the clock, an error from the Atlanta United back line put them on the back foot. Leandro González Pirez got back well to clean up a chipped ball from the opposition midfield, but his misfired header back to Brad Guzan produced an opportunity for the opposition. The Herediano striker struck quickest, intercepting the pass and chipping home the opening goal. Things only got worse just past the half hour mark, with a miscommunication in the backline gifting Herediano a fast break on goal to make it a 2-0 score line.
Atlanta United's lack of match sharpness was on show, with chances hard to come by. But the team never quit, and they got rewarded for their effort just before halftime. Atlanta United strung together a nice piece of passing play to open up space for Julian Gressel on the right wing. He cut back in on his left and unleashed a powerful shot from distance that deflected off the Herediano defender and in for a crucial away goal.
Atlanta United’s attacking momentum was building going into the half, but another goal from the hosts at the start of the second half disrupted any potential comeback. It came off a set piece, with a free kick from the right corner of the penalty area sent to the far post and the Herediano striker directing the cross home from close range.
Once again, Atlanta United recollected themselves and fought back. Darlington Nagbe and Tito Villalba came in to bring fresh legs and an attacking drive to the midfield, and both subs nearly produced game-changing moments in the final minutes. Nagbe curled a powerful effort from the edge of the box that was just barely palmed out by the Herediano goalkeeper, then it was Tito Villalba’s turn for powerful long range effort. The Argentine beat the goalkeeper but couldn’t beat the post, with his shot bouncing off the woodwork and out of play.
The final minutes ticked down with Atlanta United unable to add any more goals to their tally. They bring a crucial away goal back to Atlanta for the second leg, but still need at least two goals to move on to the next round. They’ll be working extra for the next week to iron out their kinks from match one of the season and will be hoping a friendly home crowd can help power them to a heroic comeback. That match kicks off next Thursday at 8:00 p.m. EST from Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw University. Tickets are sold out, but the match can be streamed online at Yahoo Sports.