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Atlanta United rallies past Club América to win Campeones Cup

The Five Stripes beat a Mexican giant and won their first trophy of the 2019 season.

ATLANTA — Atlanta United lifted its first trophy of the season Wednesday night. The Five Stripes claimed the Campeones Cup over Club América, defeating the Mexican giant 3-2 before a split crowd of 40,128 that tipped in favor of Las Águilas.

América fielded close to a first-choice lineup, with only Giovani dos Santos missing from the team that won Sunday at Toluca. Frank de Boer made five changes for Atlanta, most notably starting Alec Kann over Brad Guzan in goal. Ezequiel Barco, Justin Meram and Miles Robinson also did not start, though the latter two entered as substitutes to play significant minutes. Barco subbed on in second-half stoppage time.

It was the second edition of the one-game tournament. Last year, Tigres bested Toronto FC 3-1 at the Reds’ BMO Field.

The game opened with a frenetic pace that hardly slowed over the course of 90 minutes. América came out pressing high in a 4-3-3, and Atlanta pressed from its 3-5-2. One-v-one duels came with frequency all over the field, as both teams shifted into 4-2-4 formations. América defender Bruno Valdéz said in a pre-match press conference Tuesday he expected physical play. Valdéz was correct in his prognostication.

“This was a man’s game,” de Boer said. “You want to have these kind of games almost every week because you saw the quality of those players from Club América, and we competed very well with them.

“I’m very proud with what they showed today because it was a difficult game, but if you see where we were in the beginning and where we are right now, then we can say we made a major step forward. It’s good for MLS, especially good for Atlanta United, of course, that we can compete against these kind of teams. The game was, I think, fantastic to watch because it was so up and down.”

Atlanta quickly proved it would be no pushover against a Liga MX team. Emerson Hyndman opened the scoring, finishing a nice transitional play in the fifth minute. Josef Martínez and Darlington Nagbe played a one-two combination in midfield before Nagbe found Dion Pereira at the edge of the attacking third. Pereira’s first-time flick sent Hyndman through América’s back line, and the American shot across his body and into the far corner.

Las Águilas answered eight minutes later when Renato Ibarra beat Kann with a hard shot that caromed in off the underside of the cross bar.  Roger Martínez beat Franco Escobar to the end line and passed across the six-yard box. The ball was behind Henry Martin, but Ibarra crashed the back post.

The play was a bit of deja vu, with nearly the identical action taking place four minutes prior. That chance ended with Ibarra’s shot bouncing down off the cross bar and away from goal.

Kann played well in goal and made four saves. He did not look to be second choice in terms of quality.

“He’s a fantastic guy, he’s a fantastic goalkeeper and he’s training very hard,” de Boer said of Kann’s performance. “I think he deserved to play this game, and he didn’t disappoint me.”

The Decatur, Ga., native, who has made one league start in the past two seasons, said the night “makes up for some hard times.”

“Opportunities are few and far between,” Kann said. “I’ve learned that the last couple of years. But I’ve always said to myself, ‘When you get an opportunity, you have to take it and put your best foot forward.’ I think I did that today.”

Atlanta wasted an opportunity to go back in front late in the first half. Jorge Sánchez made a mess of an attempted clearance in his own penalty area, and Valdéz clattered into Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez in the 37th minute. After a VAR check, Josef Martínez stepped to the spot. Oscar Jiménez saved Josef Martínez’s effort following the Venezuelan’s jump-step run-up, and Paul Aguilar cleared the rebound away. It was Martínez’s second consecutive jump-step miss; he sailed a spot kick over the bar against D.C. United’s Bill Hamid on July 21. 

Aug 14, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Club America midfielder Renato Ibarra (30) kicks the ball past Atlanta United defender Florentin Pogba (4) during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Escobar subbed off for Robinson shortly before halftime. De Boer confirmed the center back left with a hamstring injury, but he did not go into detail.

With the high tempo, central midfield was a particularly challenging place to work. Darlington Nagbe often is tasked with keeping and advancing possession for Atlanta. Against América, he faced perhaps his most difficult test of the season. Sitting only with Hyndman in the middle when both teams changed to their 4-2-4 formations, he did not receive much help to get out of trouble.

“Every time that Darlington got the ball, it seemed like he was not only under pressure but had to get it from one side to the other,” Jeff Larentowicz said. “And he had to do it on his own because I was kind of behind him.”

Larentowicz and Nagbe decided to split up so the former could offer more defensive cover in case of any turnovers. That meant avoiding any turnovers was up to Nagbe himself.

“He does it very easily,” Larentowicz said in the media’s mixed zone more than an hour after the final whistle. “He makes it look very easy. I don’t think it’s very easy. I’m sure he’s probably already in bed resting. To be able to hold the ball and turn and do all those things and receive the ball and make it from one side of the field to the other, I mean I can’t do that. But he does it with aplomb.”

América moved in front 12 minutes after halftime when Roger Martínez scored from close range off a corner. But, the Five Stripes immediately answered through an unlikely source when Larentowicz hit a missile from 30 yards out. His shot took the slightest of deflections off Guido Rodriguez’s head and sailed into the upper 90. Jiménez was rooted to the turf. It was Larentowicz’s third-ever goal for the Five Stripes.

The América keeper made an excellent kick save on Josef Martínez four minutes later, but in the ensuing action, Florentin Pogba pushed forward and drew foul against Rodriguez in the area. Josef Martínez made the most of his second-chance penalty attempt in the 65th minute. He saved the jump-step for his goal celebration.

“I wasn’t nervous for the second one,” de Boer said. “I almost knew 100 percent he would score.”

Atlanta came close to adding some insurance in the 70th minute, when a near-perfect Pity Martinez free kick was headed off the line by Valdéz. The defender exited shortly thereafter upon picking up his second yellow card of the evening for fouling Josef Martínez on a counter. Atlanta’s No. 7 drew the foul despite racing up-field in a one-on-five situation in the 72nd minute. 

Short a player and in the early stages of its 2019 Apertura season, América fatigued down the stretch. Jiménez came up for a corner in stoppage time, but nothing came from the chance. The Five Stripes held on and won more silverware at home. Their next opportunity to win a trophy comes Aug. 27, in the U.S. Open Cup final against Minnesota United.

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