ATLANTA — Mired in a season-opening rut defined by poor results and lifeless play, Atlanta United made a change in its Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Monterrey. Frank de Boer shelved his possession-obsessed 3-4-3 in favor of a couple of different looks and a more direct, aggressive approach.
The Five Stripes’ dream of becoming a true regional power by winning this tournament will have to wait at least one more year — los Rayados advanced 3-1 on aggregate — but the 1-0 win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Wednesday night was Atlanta’s best performance of 2019.
De Boer’s team opened in a 3-5-2, the same formation deployed by Tata Martino much of last season, with Pity Martinez and Josef Martinez up top and Ezequiel Barco floating from touchline to touchline in support. Atlanta pressed high in defense to win the ball and created multiple chances, with Josef Martinez forcing a diving save from Marcelo Barovero in the 10th minute.
Following the substitution of Pity Martinez for Tito Villalba in the 65th, the shape became a 4-3-3, and it brought about the only goal of the evening. Josef Martinez and shuttling midfielder Darlington Nagbe linked up around the penalty area for the sort of combination local supporters have been waiting to see in de Boer’s system. Nagbe slotted an inch-perfect pass to unlock the Rayados defense, and Josef Martinez completed the move with a trademark finish, blasting his shot into the far top corner of the net.
Villalba offered a simple explanation for the new formation. “It changed because we were losing and we had to win,” he said through an interpreter after the game.
El Pity continues progress
It has been a slow process to integrate the 2018 South American Footballer of the Year into Atlanta’s first 11. Pity Martinez still does not appear to be fully match fit after a short offseason. He was worn out by the time of his exit Wednesday night. Nevertheless, Five Stripes supporters received their best look yet at what the new No. 10 can do with his left foot.
Martinez whipped in dangerous crosses with pace and bend that will make life difficult for Major League Soccer defenders this season. His desire to shoot from distance is audacious, the sort of characteristic that would be criticized if he weren’t so good at it. A first-half strike from 30 yards sent Barovero scrambling and forced a good save. Atlanta is still waiting to see the best from El Pity, but he’s getting there.
Atlanta, Monterrey bring atmosphere
A regular debate among MLS enthusiasts is: Does the Champions League even matter?
Detractors will point to the Mexican dominance, a lack English-language television coverage and the common sight of sparse attendance. Following Monterrey’s advancement, Rayados captain Miguel Layun pointed to the winners’ prize of qualification for the Club World Cup as evidence of CCL’s importance.
As for atmosphere, the supporters at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Estadio BBVA Bancomer made the games feel like a big deal. Both legs drew crowds in excess of 40,000, and those who were at the venues made their voices heard. Considering the Five Stripes’ current form, and a 3-0 deficit going into the second leg, there was concern Atlanta would not turn up Wednesday night. Atlanta did turn up, and Monterrey brought an impressive away section. The two sides attempted to shout over each other with their own repertoires of songs and chants: “vamos, vamos, vamos, ATL” meeting “dale, dale, dale, Rayados.”
Liverpool fans love to talk about the Reds’ continental triumphs and “those big European nights at Anfield.” It remains to be seen if Atlanta will become a regular Champions League contender, but this felt like a big North American night at the Benz.