ATLANTA — Atlanta United failed to advance past Monterrey in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals, but after a string of disappointing results that left the home fans booing Sunday, the Five Stripes put in a winning performance Wednesday night against Los Rayados.
Atlanta won the second leg of the quarterfinal series 1-0 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Monterrey advanced to the semifinals 3-1 on aggregate, and will face the winner of Thursday night’s quarterfinal between Sporting Kansas City and Panama’s CAI de La Chorrera. The loss was Monterrey’s first in all competitions this year.
After struggling to pick up Frank de Boer’s 3-4-3 through the first five games of the season, the Five Stripes came out in a 3-5-2 that was reminiscent of former manager Tata Martino’s tactics. Atlanta pressed higher up the field and was more direct with the ball, working the flanks and sending early crosses into the box. The new strategy, which came three days after a tepid 1-1 draw against Major League Soccer expansion side FC Cincinnati, produced 12 shots against Monterrey.
“This is the energy you want to see,” de Boer said after the game. “This is what the fans expect from Atlanta United.”
Josef Martinez scored in the 77th minute Wednesday, his third goal of the tournament, combining well on a give-and-go with Darlington Nagbe. Martinez timed his run and received a through ball from Nagbe in the penalty area before taking a touch and firing high over Marcelo Barovero’s glove from eight yards. Atlanta nearly pulled another goal back five minutes later, but Nagbe’s strike from the top of the box came after Martinez had been whistled for a foul.
At full time, the announced crowd of 40,048 gave the home side a loud ovation.
Center back Miles Robinson once again put in a man-of-the-match performance, bottling up Rayados forward Rogelio Funes Mori all night. In the third minute, Mori threatened to silence the crowd, but he could not beat Robinson one-on-one, slaloming toward goal with the ball before the 21-year-old poked it away with a well-timed challenge. Captain Michael Parkhurst called his teammate’s performance “flawless.”
“He was one-on-one a lot of the game,” Parkhurst said. “We try to provide cover every now and then, but I thought he was very, very strong. He’s been very good to start the season, and he built on that today, because I thought he was the best player on the field.”
Atlanta will have to wait at least one more year before emerging as a regional giant. But, with the 2019 Champions League behind them, the Five Stripes can focus their full attention on recovering from a slow start — one point from two games — in MLS play. Atlanta hosts the Philadelphia Union at 7 p.m. ET Sunday night.