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Atlanta United takes first real step toward super-club status with Campeones Cup win

Atlanta’s win was the first for an MLS side against a team from Liga MX in a final since 1998.

Aug 14, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) reacts after scoring on a penalty kick against Club America during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
Aug 14, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) reacts after scoring on a penalty kick against Club America during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

ATLANTA — Those big North American nights at the Benz. 

Atlanta United 1, Monterrey 0 was one, though it was only consolation for the home side in a 3-1 aggregate Concacaf Champions League defeat. Atlanta United 3, Club América 2 was another, but it was something different. It laid down a marker.

Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez had guaranteed a Campeones Cup victory. Josef Martínez had stated the game’s importance by proclaiming, “We have to win.” With a trophy on the line and with América fielding a first-choice lineup, the Five Stripes prevailed. As Dirty South Soccer’s Rob Usry noted, Atlanta did not eek out a victory by bunkering and hoping for the best against a vastly superior side. Frank de Boer’s team took the game to Las Águilas. América manager Miguel Herrera admitted as much in his postgame press conference.

“They played well,” Herrera said through an interpreter. “They took advantage of our mistakes. We had mistakes and capitalized on them. We had clear opportunities. We hit the post, kicked it out of bounds and just weren’t as assertive as them.”

Atlanta is 2-0 against Liga MX behemoths in its home stadium this season. In both games, the play was on a much higher level than the typical MLS meeting. With large contingents of vocal away supporters in the stands, the atmosphere too raised the bar. The games felt bigger, and participating in them makes Atlanta feel bigger. Fans and media questioned whether Campeones Cup, in only its second year of existence, mattered. That question was answered within minutes of the opening kickoff. It was plain to see both teams were going for it, and the 40,000-plus in attendance reacted accordingly.

“Club América has a little bit of the same philosophy like us,” a glowing de Boer said after his team’s win. “They play a different system, but their philosophy is almost the same. They want to press forward, and they will play one-against-one.” 

From Atlanta’s inception, everyone involved with the club has stated a goal of becoming not just a perennial Major League Soccer contender, but truly one of the biggest names in Concacaf. That is a tall order considering the competition. Liga MX clubs boast history that dwarfs even the oldest of MLS. Atlanta can elevate only by building its own history, by winning competitive matches against Mexico’s bigger teams. It did that Wednesday night.

The Mexican newspapers took América’s defeat as well as expected. “First loser!” blared an all-caps headline on Mexico City’s Cancha. “América becomes the first Mexican team to lose a title to an MLS club,” the head continued in Spanish. (That’s not quite right: D.C. United defeated Toluca in the 1998 Champions’ Cup final. Still, this was a historic loss). “América was killed in attempt to win another title,” declared Esto. To be a continental power, one’s name must be known throughout the continent. If they did not before, they now know Atlanta United’s name in Mexico.

The Five Stripes are not there yet, but Wednesday night was a first tangible step toward becoming one of the biggest teams in Concacaf. If Atlanta defeats Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final at home Aug. 27, it will qualify for next year’s Champions League and bring about more of those big North American nights at the Benz.

Atlanta did it with depth

To win a final, the big players have to step up. Atlanta’s did. Pity Martínez was sensational. Josef Martínez was too, and he overcame a penalty miss by stepping to the spot again and burying the decisive goal. It was a signature moment for the face of Atlanta United.

But, the biggest surprise Wednesday was not that Atlanta won, it was how Atlanta won. Club América’s lineup featured 10 players who started in its most recent league game. De Boer made five changes from his squad that defeated New York City FC over the weekend. Facing a first-choice América side, Atlanta won with depth.

“I want to play every week,” Jeff Larentowicz said. “Flo [Pogba] wants to play every week, Dion [Pereira] wants to play every week, Emerson [Hyndman] wants to play every week. But at the same time, we support each other and we want to win. We have the Open Cup coming up, we have the run through the playoffs. I think it’s more just about coming together as a group, believing in what we’re doing and being a professional. When your number gets called, you step up and you perform.”

De Boer throughout the year has said he plays with more than 11 players. He looks to his entire squad to be competitive and win as many games as possible during a long season that includes multiple competitions.

“We do it with the whole roster, and I have confidence in those players,” the manager said. “If not, I wouldn’t play them. If you see how Emerson played today, I think he was fantastic. Jeff, you know. Dion did already [earlier this season] — maybe Justin [Meram] has a little bit of an advantage right now — he did great.”

Hyndman scored Atlanta’s opening goal after a perfect first-time flicked through ball from Pereira. After Las Águilas took the lead, Larentowicz equalized with an incredible strike from 30 yards. Pogba created Josef Martínez’s opportunity for redemption by drawing a foul in the penalty area. Alec Kann, who started in goal over Brad Guzan, made four impressive saves.

“It’s not easy,” Larentowicz said. “It’s certainly not easy, especially when you’re a guy that expects to play every week, but we support each other. To have an opportunity in a game like this is a big thing.”

Building from here

Atlanta has its first trophy of 2019, and while the Supporters’ Shield likely is out of reach, the Five Stripes have a legitimate shot to win a treble. They host the Open Cup final later this month, and if they play at the level seen in recent weeks, they can beat any team — including Los Angeles FC — in the MLS Cup playoffs. 

The team celebrated Wednesday night, but it is quickly moving forward with more challenges ahead. Winning at home is one thing. Atlanta still must prove it can pick up victories on the road.

“We’re chasing Philly [for first place in the Eastern Conference] for sure, but we’re also trying to win road games, which we haven’t done” Larentowicz said. “Portland’s a huge test [this Sunday]. They’re a good team. Obviously they’re the team we beat in the [2018 MLS Cup] final. I’m sure they want to stick it to us, for sure. Then you have Orlando, then you play in the Open Cup and then you go to Philly.

“A lot of difficult games, a lot of road games — three out of four — we have to win those games. I think that Philly are playing extremely well. You’ve got New York [City] with games in hand, and in a sense we have to think there’s possibly a road game in the playoffs. We went on the road in 2018 expecting to win, and we have to do that again.”

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