The conditions in San Pedro Sula, Honduras were less than ideal for Atlanta United FC in its second appearance in Concacaf Champions League. It was a hot and humid Tuesday evening, the soccer was sloppy, and the pitch was heavy, impeding the quickness of the Five Stripes’ attack.
Moreover, Atlanta United was not playing at full strength, entering the match without MLS 2019 Best XI Defender Miles Robinson, among other absences.
Still, thanks to a timely strike from Josef Martinez and a few incredible saves from Brad Guzan, the Five Stripes left Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano with a 1-1 draw in the first leg of its Champions League clash with FC Motagua, a side from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
With an away goal to its name, Atlanta United will host the second leg of the bout next week with an advantage.
After neither team tallied a shot attempt in the first 19 minutes of play, Motagua began pushing more of its men forward. And in the 34th minute, it found the back of the net first, following a fast break down the right side of the pitch.
As Félix Crisanto carried possession, Roberto Aldana drifted away and was left unmarked in the six-yard-box. When Crisanto delivered a stellar cross, Aldana effortlessly volleyed it past Guzan to open the scoring.
Atlanta United's coach Frank De Boer looks on during their Concacaf Champions League football match against Motagua's at Olimpico Metropolitano stadium in San Pedro Sula, Honduras on February 18, 2020. (Photo by Orlando Sierra / AFP)
Aldana, a 32-year-old from Paraguay, has six goals in league play this season for Motagua. The club has captured 17 league titles in Honduras, including the 2019 Apertura crown. Tuesday was the club’s fifth Champions League appearance.
Atlanta United responded immediately though, as Josef Martinez and Pity Martinez played a little two-man back-and-forth weave, carving their way down the middle of the field following the kickoff from Montagua’s score. The interchange ended with Josef slotting in a right-footed shot that banged off the far-left post before rolling into the back of the net.
Josef took a knee in celebration, then gave a hug to Pity, who set him up.
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The Five Stripes were unable to muster up another goal, despite tallying 11 shots and putting five of those attempts on frame.
Keeping the score tied was Guzan, who totaled five saves, including a crucial one in the 71st minute that was a center-of-the-box header from Aldana. The 35-year-old American keeper grabbed another important save in the 85th minute, diving to his left to knock away an attempt from Motagua’s Omar Elvir.
Atlanta United didn’t enter the match with manager Frank de Boer’s first-choice roster. In addition to Robinson’s absence — who missed the match with a quad strain — Edgar Castillo was out with a broken rib and promising homegrown fullback George Bello is still recovering from a concussion.
Also, new Atlanta signings in Jake Mulraney, Matheus Rossetto and Manuel Castro didn’t join the club for the trip because they have yet to secure work visas.
de Boer opted to go with a four-man back-line that featured Franco Escobar at left back, Fernando Meza and Anton Walkes as the centerbacks and Mo Adams at right back. Eric Remedi got the nod in the midfield after not starting in Atlanta’s last three preseason games.
Despite turning the ball over a handful of times in the opening minutes, Pity Martinez gave a good effort on a free kick in the 23rd minute that nearly led to an Atlanta United goal. Anton Walkes’ header on Martinez’s feed went just to the right of the Motagua goal.
Josef Martinez picked up a yellow card for unsporting behavior just before halftime. After receiving the card, Martinez got in the face of referee Adonai Escobedo González, who was officiating his first Concacaf Champions League match. He struggled to retain control for the majority of the game, as it was a physical one that saw three yellow cards handed out and 38 fouls called.
Motagua kept the pressure on for much of the second half, knowing it needed another goal at home to increase its chances of pulling off an upset over Atlanta. The Honduran side attempted 30 crosses and put six of its 12 shots on-frame. Alas, Motagua couldn’t find the back of the net again.
In all, Atlanta United did not play its best in its first leg against Motagua – nor did it play at full strength – but the Five Stripes are heading home with an edge after securing an away goal, the 89th score for Josef Martinez in his career as an Atlanta United striker.
The Five Stripes will be hoping for better conditions and more goals in the second leg of this Champions League bout, which will be played Feb. 25 at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, Georgia. Atlanta United will advance to the quarterfinals with any win or a 0-0 draw.