KENNESAW, Ga. — For the second straight season, Atlanta United FC will advance to the quarterfinals of the Concacaf Champions League.
The Five Stripes’ relentless attack provided enough action at the Fraction — also known as Fifth Third Bank Stadium — on a chilly Tuesday evening to push the home team through. Pity and Josef Martinez combined for a trio of goals, giving Atlanta a 4-1 aggregate win over Honduran side FC Motagua in front of an announced crowd of 8,474 fans.
“We can still be better, I think, but this is a good first step,” Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer said. “It’s a long season to go. What I saw today gives me a lot of confidence.”
Much of the first half was sloppy and unlucky for Five Stripes as they missed chance after chance to score. Atlanta United didn’t put a shot on-goal until the 35th minute, a right-footed attempt from Josef Martinez that was easily saved.
Pity Martinez was particularly having a rough time, unable to put any of his first four shots on-frame. The high-priced Argentine skied a free kick in the 11th minute, missed on a shot attempt in the 23rd minute, struck a feed from Josef wide right of the goal in the 35th minute and then put a pass from Ezequiel Barco way over the bar in the 39th minute.
But El Pity would not squander his next chance, which came just a minute later, in the 40th. After newcomer Fernando Meza won an aerial duel, he played a mid-range pass to Pity, who deftly flicked the ball to Josef, who was parked near the top of the penalty box. As Pity made a run behind him, Josef played a smooth backheel on the ball. Pity ran onto it, took one touch, then sliced a hard shot past Motagua’s goalkeeper that landed in the right wall of the net.
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The goal was the culmination of Atlanta growing into the match as it went along.
Their sharpness was improving and they were creating scoring opportunities, but just couldn’t quite get one to pay off. But the Five Stripes kept attacking, kept working, kept building and kept shooting. The result was Josef’s first assist and Pity’s first goal of the 2020 season, a combination that gave Atlanta United a 2-1 advantage in the aggregate and proved to be the game-winner.
Still, Atlanta had more attacking power left in the tank.
Josef added to the scoring in the 61st minute. After playing a ball to Pity, Josef made a run toward Motagua’s goal and Pity played him a near-perfect through ball. Motagua’s keeper, Jonathan Rougier, came off his line to try and scoop it up, but Josef raced by him and then chipped the ball over his head, allowing it to spin into the net for Atlanta’s second goal of the evening.
Pity put an exclamation point on the result in the 83rd minute by cleaning up a mess left by Rougier. The keeper came off his line and bulldozed Josef into the turf at the top of the box, but the ball trickled out to the left. Pity ran onto it, weaved his way around two defenders and effortlessly chipped the ball into the net.
“The speed of the field was super fast,” Motagua head coach Diego Vazquez said through a translator. “Atlanta’s speed was particularly dominant. Their forwards are just fantastic… Barco and Pity played a very tight game and it was difficult for us to overcome.”
Motagua's Roberto Aldana, front, and Atlanta United's Fernando Meza vie for a head ball during the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League soccer match Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Kennesaw, Ga. (John Amis/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Motagua began the match aggressively, deploying a high-pressing style of play. Ultimately, they were more inefficient than Atlanta in the final third, notching just one shot attempt to the Five Stripes’ 11 in the first half.
With a bit larger of a player pool to choose from in this second leg, de Boer opted to go with a different formation. It featured three centerbacks in Franco Escobar, Meza and Anton Walkes, with Brooks Lennon and Jake Mulraney patrolling the touchlines as wingbacks. Emerson Hyndman and Eric Remedi acted as holding midfielders, while Josef, Pity and Barco spearheaded the attack.
The 3-4-2-1 was a risky choice, but Atlanta’s backline held strong and it put its attacking weapons in the best position. Mulraney, making his Five Stripes’ debut, fared well on the left wing on offense and defense, winning balls and putting crosses into the box. Mulraney completed 10 passes, completed two dribbles and tallied four recoveries, two tackles and two clearances.
“As a collective, I was really happy,” Mulraney said. “We could’ve been three or four (goals) up at halftime. We had a lot of chances. We still took some chances. We finished the game comfortably.”
In all, Atlanta put seven of their 16 shots on-target and controlled 61 percent of the possession.
Brad Guzan, making his 100th appearance for the club, had a relatively easy night in goal for Atlanta. The veteran American keeper faced zero shots on-frame and didn’t have to make a save or claim a cross.
Atlanta doesn’t have much time to rest before its next match. On Saturday, they’ll open their fourth Major League Soccer campaign on the road against expansion side Nashville SC.
The Five Stripes will learn their next opponent in Champions League on Wednesday, as they’ll face the winner of a match between Guatemalan side Comunicaciones or Club America of Liga MX.