The Atlanta United Unified Team pulled out an impressive 4-3 win over the Atlanta United A League team in a hot, dragonfly-filled scrimmage at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground on Wednesday. After back-and-forth play led to extra time and a game-deciding no-call made by the main referee, Brooks Lennon, the Unified team delivered a strong upset over the vaunted A League team 4-3 on their home turf.
The match pitted black vs. red in a 7v7 competition that consisted of two 20-minute halves. The Unified Team wore crimson and the A League team, managed by Dom Dwyer, wore all black.
With a roster that included international stars such as Gonzalo Pineda, Diego de la Torre and members of Atlanta United’s coaching staff, the A League team was the heavy favorite entering Wednesday’s contest. Even with a star-studded roster, the Unified team was not intimidated and gave 100 percent to the match. They passed the ball around their opponents with skill, creating several chances on goal in the first half.
“Obviously, these people are very good at soccer, at a higher level than we’re used to playing against,” Unified coach Molly von Eschenbach said. “So, the fact that we were able to have some 1-2 touches around them, have some plays where we pass around them and our kids having the confidence to take them on 1v1 really shows me that they’re fearless. It’s something that’s going to lead to more goals and more wins.”
Trying to surprise the opponent, Dwyer opted to start goalkeeping coach Liam Curran as a field player. It was an unconventional move by the gaffer, but Curran showed some deft with his feet, creating passing channels across the pitch and controlling the ball with a light touch.
A goalkeeper that made a big difference between the sticks was Unified’s Anthony Hernandez. The dependable keeper made the first save of the match, blocking a shot on goal by Atlanta United fitness coach Jack Kimber. Rivaling Brad Guzan’s performance last season at Subaru Park, Hernandez was a wall for Unified and had a big day with eight saves.
Unified opened the scoring in the first half. Striker Xavier Hairston received a cross from midfielder Dylan Lenze and put it past the A League team goalkeeper. Conceding an early goal prompted Dwyer to make some early substitutions, including his star player, Pineda, who filled in on the backline.
Pineda proved to be one of the best players on the pitch, placing passes with impeccable precision to his teammates, including a pinpoint switch to his friend and teammate, de la Torre. He moved the ball with ease, dancing around his defenders, and was fiercely competitive in his defensive stance.
After entering the halftime break even 1-1, the scoring opened up in the second half. Assistant coach Rob Valentino knocked in a gimme goal from close range for the A League team. Then, Unified midfielder Ike Eiswirth drilled a low shot that flew through a hole in the side netting to even the match 2-2.
As the scoring increased, so did the intensity. Play grew chippy between the sides, the A League team frustrated with Unified’s ability to pass around them. When A League’s Manuel Garcia-Oronoz was called for a hard foul, he contested vehemently. Lennon responded firmly, “Don’t talk back to me” and sent Garcia-Oronoz off the pitch. The serious, firm display earned the referee the nickname “Officer Lennon” by those in attendance watching from the sideline.
Garcia-Oronoz’s rant continued as he was sent off, and he received a red card in the form of a red practice cone from Atlanta United defender George Campbell, who was serving as the sideline judge. (Although, Garcia-Oronoz somehow found his way back onto the pitch later in the second half.)
A few minutes later, the A League term scored the go-ahead goal. Down 3-2 with not much time remaining, Unified turned to their clutch performer Michael Mastrangelo. The dangerous finisher did exactly what he did in the team’s match against Orlando City earlier this season: calmly and confidently find the tying goal on an impressive strike.
With the score 3-3, the match went to overtime. Extra time rules were sudden death, the next team to score would win the match. The intensity carried into overtime, and both teams pressed to cap the muggy evening with the game-winner and head home.
Hairston received the ball around midfield for Unified. In a duel with Pineda, the Unified speedster dropped Pineda flat on the ground. Officer Lennon emphatically raised both hands in the air, using his commanding tone to rule “Play on!”, while Pineda pleaded for a call from the ground. Play continued, and Hairston carried the ball up the field to score the winning goal, securing his brace on the night.
Pineda, whose competitive nature was clear throughout the match, demanded VAR review while the teams walked off the pitch. However, Officer Lennon stood tall once again and blew the whistle. The goal counted, and the Atlanta United Unified team won the scrimmage 4-3, perhaps taking their competitors a little off-guard with their skill.
“We may have underestimated the competition,” videographer and A League team midfielder Edwin Hernandez said. “I felt like they were very well-coached, and their fitness was way higher than ours. Respect to the organization.”
The scrimmage was a good indicator for the Unified team as they head into their final match of the season. They’ll travel to the northeast to take on the Unified team for the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium prior to kickoff between the first teams.
On the road trip, the Unified players will travel together and have activities around the city outside of soccer. But they’ll look forward to keeping the momentum going from Wednesday’s scrimmage and putting on a good performance.
“It’s important to carry over our passing patterns that we’ve been learning and carry over the intensity,” von Eschenbach said. “Every scrimmage, whether it’s New England or the coaching staff or even just a scrimmage at practice, we want to make sure everyone’s giving their 100 percent, leaving it all out there and carry over that intensity and that desire to win.”
When asked after the match about the New England match, Mastrangelo predicted Atlanta United Unified would beat New England 4-3 – incidentally the same result as Wednesday’s scrimmage. Whether the scrimmage on Wednesday prepared Unified for the upcoming competition, there’s no better answer than Mastrangelo’s: