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Atlanta United bounces back to best Herediano, advance in CCL

Atlanta United midfielder Julian Gressel, left, celebrates his goal against Herediano with Ezequiel Barco during a Concacaf Champions League soccer match Thursday, Feb. 28, 2018, in Kennesaw, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal Constitution via AP)

KENNESAW, Ga.  — Back on Georgia soil, Atlanta United FC looked like a completely different team than the one that took the pitch a week ago in Costa Rica.

“Whatever (Atlanta) worked on this week before the match, they executed it perfectly,” CS Herediano head coach Hernán Medford said through a translator.

The Five Stripes played fast, hard and crisp. They scored quickly, combined for smart plays and put on a clinic in a 4-0 win over CS Herediano in the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 in front of an announced crowd of 8,589 fans at Fifth Third Bank Stadium, just off the campus of Kennesaw State University.

Despite a 3-1 deficit after the first leg, Atlanta United prevailed 5-3 on aggregate and punched their ticket to the quarterfinals, where they will meet CF Monterrey from Liga MX.

“I’m very happy. We did everything that we could. I’m very proud,” Atlanta coach Frank de Boer said. “Really, I have to give applause to the whole team All the players did a good job tonight.”

The win marked the ninth time since 2002 that MLS teams have been victorious by three goals or more in Concacaf Champions League play. It also marked the ninth time since 2002 that an MLS team has come back from a two-goal or more deficit to win a CCL series.

Within the first 47 seconds, Brek Shea crossed a ball into the box from the left wing and it went uncleared. Josef Martinez found the ball after it touched a defender, and one-timed the shot past Herediano’s keeper.

It was the fastest goal scored in club history for Atlanta United.

“It was about just focusing in on the game,” Atlanta defender Miles Robinson said. “We got that early goal, which was crucial and we just kept our foot on the gas.”

Martinez, who broke the MLS single-season scoring record last season, ran to the left side of the goal after scoring and posed for his signature fusion celebration, typically performed with Miguel Almiron last season. But this time, there was no Miggy running up to his side.

The man who inherited the No. 10 from Almiron, reigning South American Player of the Year Pity Martinez, dazzled Atlanta United supporters Thursday night with his fancy footwork and nifty passes. Moments after Josef’s goal, Pity danced around three defenders to get an open shot at the goal, but he put the attempt high over the bar.

Atlanta United leveled the aggregate in the ninth minute, when Ezequiel Barco dribbled around a Herediano defender on the right wing before feeding a ball to Julian Gressel. The versatile German midfielder, who scored Atlanta’s lone goal in the first leg of the series, blasted a right-footed shot by Herediano’s keeper that landed just inside the far post.

“It was good. We all played within our system and that kind of brings out the best in everybody, because you have the right players in the right spots,” Gressel said. “I think that was crucial today and will be crucial down the road during the season.”

The Five Stripes dominated the first half, controlling 69.7 percent of possession and notching a 85.4 percent accuracy on 302 passes. Meanwhile, Herediano tallied just two shots on target. Pity Martinez and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez each drew yellow cards in the first half from unpredictable referee Oshane Nation and will both be suspended for one match if they are booked again. 

Atlanta United easily found its footing again in the second half, and in the 63rd minute made it 3-0. From the midfield, Eric Remedi played a through ball to a sprinting Shea, who then played a simple cross over to Josef Martinez. The reigning MLS MVP put the shot home for his second goal of the day, as Atlanta supporters began chanting “Tres a cero.”

For Shea, who was celebrating his 29th birthday, it was his first assist in an Atlanta kit.

Still, although Atlanta was up 3-0 with the clock dwindling, all Herediano needed was one goal to push the game into a penalty kick shootout. That opportunity faded in the 83rd minute though, as the Five Stripes sealed the game with a goal by Gonzalez Pirez. Following a corner kick, Barco regained possession of the ball and flipped a cross into to the box where it found Gonzalez Pirez, who headed it past Herediano’s goalkeeper.

“Atlanta was intense… There’s no excuse,” Medford said. “It’s not for me to be talking about at the end… The best coach is not the one talking about what could’ve happened at the end of the game.”

Five Stripes manager Frank de Boer tweaked his lineup a bit from the one he used in Costa Rica a week ago. Darlington Nagbe and Shea were inserted as starters, Pity and Barco switched sides as wingers, and Michael Parkhurst moved to center back, while Miles Robinson was flanked out on the right side of the back line.

“If we’re going to play in these tournaments, we’re going to need 30 players, not just 11 guys. We need everyone on the roster to be able to step up,” de Boer said. “Eric and Darlington were the two players who touched the ball the most tonight and that’s what we want. We don’t want the three center backs on the ball, being the guys who touch it the most, we want those guys to be in the middle of the field.”

Nagbe brought more control to a midfield that appeared confused last week, and indeed, he and Remedi combined for 167 touches, seven tackles and 149 passes.

Shea injected creative playmaking along the left side, and the back line was stable, keeping a clean sheet.

“It’s just a coach’s decision. Parky has played in the center often, all last year pretty much, so he was comfortable (at center back) and I was comfortable out wide,” Robinson said. “It’s always a big advantage being on the home field. We had a really good game today and we’re happy about it.”

Next up for Atlanta United is its MLS season-opener, on Sunday at D.C. United. The dates, times and venue for the Five Stripes quarterfinal match-up with Monterrey in the CCL quarterfinals are still to-be-determined.

“Monterrey is a great team, they are first in the Mexican league for a reason,” de Boer said. “It’s going to be a totally different challenge for us. I think they have probably more quality than Herediano, but we have quality as well.”

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