Costa Rica's Club Sport Herediano Pablo Salazar (R) vies for the ball with United States United Atlanta FC Josef Martinez during their Concacaf Champions League football match at the Rosabal Cordero stadium in Heredia, Costa Rica on February 21, 2019. (Photo by Ezequiel BECERRA / AFP)
A play in the 71st minute summed up Atlanta United’s night in Costa Rica for the first leg of its first appearance in the Concacaf Champions League. Josef Martinez, the reigning MVP and Golden Boot winner of Major League Soccer, was in a good position in front of the net. A cross came flying in and Martinez got his head on it, but the ball sailed wide of the far post. Close, but no goal.
All night, Atlanta United seemed a step behind CS Herediano. The Five Stripes looked very much like a team playing its first game of the year, and a team playing somewhere it had never been before.
The home side, Herediano, bested the reigning MLS Cup champs 3-1 in front of a packed-in and loud crowd at Estadio Eladio Rosabal Cordero. About 200 Atlanta United fans made the trip to Heredia, Costa Rica, including club president Darren Eales and the team’s owner, Arthur Blank.
Atlanta United’s defense looked out of sorts early and often.
In the seventh minute, homegrown left wingback George Bello chested a long pass from Herediano, and the ball was then headed toward goalkeeper Brad Guzan by Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. But former D.C. United forward Jose Guillermo Ortiz was lurking nearby. He sprinted into Atlanta’s box, intercepted the pass and chipped a ball over Guzan from about 10 yards out for the home team’s first goal.
Pity Martinez fooled opposing defenders, Ezequiel Barco made several aggressive runs and Julian Gressel sent in many powerful crosses, but Atlanta couldn’t muster up any real scoring chances early.
While Atlanta was trying to press, Herediano launched a four-man break on a counterattack in the 34th minute that resulted in the Costa Rican side’s second goal. Gonzalez Pirez and Miles Robinson came over to stop the counter, but no other defenders were left behind. After receiving a pass from Ortiz, Herediano’s Randall Azofeifa sliced an easy shot past Guzan.
Atlanta’s defense seemed confused, lost and bewildered at that point.
But the Five Stripes didn’t stop. After getting a feed from Pity Martinez, Gressel charged toward the Herediano box from the right wing, cut to his left to create space from a defender and launched a left-footed shot that grazed a player before sailing into the back of the net in the 41st minute.
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Herediano added more cushion to the score line in the 50th minute, when Azofeifa lofted a free kick into the penalty area that found a sliding Esteban Granados, who poked the ball past Guzan for the home club’s third goal.
New Atlanta head coach Frank de Boer attempted to inject some life into the Five Stripes in the latter portions of the game, inserting dynamic and electric attackers Darlington Nagbe and Hector “Tito” Villalba.
But aside from a shot that Nagbe put on target to force a save in the 79th minute and a shot from Villalba that rattled the post in the 90th minute, nothing came of de Boer’s move. The coach did not use his third substitution.
An all-Mexican officiating crew handed out four yellow cards, including one to Atlanta’s Bello in the 49th minute for unsporting behavior. Bello getting the start was a bit of a surprise, considering he is just 17 years old and the player he started over, Brek Shea, has played in nine Concacaf Champions League contests.
Another adjustment to the lineup was having captain Michael Parkhurst play on the right side in a three-man back line. Last season, the 35-year-old Parkhurst was typically the middle centerback when Atlanta used three-man back lines. That role was played by Robinson on Thursday.
In all, Atlanta fired 14 shots, but put just three on target. Herediano appeared to be the more physical team, tallying more tackles (22-14) and fouls (17-11) than Atlanta. The Five Stripes did, however, hold 53.4 percent of possession.
Atlanta United heads home now, down two goals going into the return leg. That match will be played Thursday at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, Ga., at 8 p.m. ET.