In soccer it’s not always a massive victory that can jumpstart a season. And while the Five Stripes couldn’t come back from the three-goal deficit from the first leg, Wednesday night’s strong 1-0 win over Rayados felt like the start of something truly special: a return to the dynamic, electric side that they’re aspiring to be, and the catalyst for what is to come.
Head coach Frank de Boer made clear tweaks to the tactical strategy, but kept largely the same lineup from this weekend’s draw. Jeff Larentowicz slotted into the back line in place of the suspended Leandro González Pirez, while Mikey Ambrose came in for Brek Shea on the left wing. The full XI: Brad Guzan (GK), Michael Parkhurst (LCB), Miles Robinson (CB), Jeff Larentowicz (RCB), Mikey Ambrose (LWB), Eric Remedi (CM), Darlington Nagbe (CM), Julian Gressel (RWB), Ezequiel Barco (FWD), Josef Martinez (FWD), Pity Martínez (FWD).
Needing three goals to keep their hopes alive, the Five Stripes launched out of the gate with their trademark press, creating chances off the start –– and nearly took their first goal in just the tenth minute. Ezequiel Barco took off on an incisive dribble –– one of many from him on the night –– and played a defense-splitting pass from just outside the 18-yard box. Josef Martinez got to the ball first, but his redirection was just palmed out by the Rayados goalkeeper.
Pity Martínez was the next to challenge the Rayados goalkeeper, fizzing two rasping left-footed efforts at the opposing net. First was from way far out, a knuckling effort that was dipping into the top corner before being clawed out. The second was from way wide, with a curling effort sailing inches over the bar.
Despite their chances, Atlanta United went into the half tied 0-0 despite a constantly-threatening attack. Tito Villalba, Kevin Kratz and Florentin Pogba all came on in the second half, adding yet more impetus to a side fighting until the last minute. Darlington Nagbe had a fizzed, low effort cleared off the line, while Julian Gressel’s teasing cross was barely kept out of the path of a sliding Josef Martinez. But it was Darlington Nagbe and Josef Martinez who combined for the opening goal. The American international played an incredible cutback through ball into the feet of Josef Martinez behind the defense, and the Venezuelan made no mistake, hammering a ball inside the top corner.
The Five Stripes took the match to their opponent the entire match, but couldn’t quite overcome the three goal-deficit. However, any fan in red and black in Mercedes-Benz Stadium could tell you: this was an Atlanta United side with a new bit, a new sense of urgency, and a side that is starting to click as we head into a long season. The Concacaf journey may be over, but Chapter III has just begun.
The Five Stripes will be back in action on Sunday night as they take on the Philadelphia Union at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Be there to show your support for the squad by reserving your tickets here.