Atlanta United FC left its opening 2020 Concacaf Champions League match against FC Motagua with a 1-1 draw Tuesday, but given the conditions, Frank de Boer was upbeat with how his side played.
“I think we can be very positive about the result,” de Boer said during a conference call after the game. “Circumstances were very difficult, especially the field was – yeah, not the best field, you could say. You could already see (the ball) bouncing every time. So, to really play our style of play was quite difficult. I think we did very well in getting prepared… I’m very happy with it.”
The field at Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, Honduras was thick and bumpy. It stifled Atlanta United’s typically speedy attack and often left the Five Stripes settling for long passes.
But the shape of the pitch wasn’t the only plight Atlanta was saddled with entering the match. It played the game without 2019 MLS Best XI Defender Miles Robinson, who suffered a quad strain. Additionally, Edgar Castillo was out with a broken rib and promising homegrown fullback George Bello is still recovering from a concussion.
Moreover, newcomers Jake Mulraney, Matheus Rossetto and Manuel Castro were unavailable for de Boer’s selection because they hadn’t secured work visas. de Boer said that Mulraney – a 23-year-old Irish midfielder – has one now and should be available for the second leg of this Champions League bout. de Boer added that Rossetto “probably, maybe also” will have his visa in time for the second leg.
Additionally, fullback Brooks Lennon was not 100 percent healthy after he “twisted his ankle a little bit” in training on Thursday, de Boer said. Lennon did enter the match in the second half, playing 25 minutes.
Unable to go with a first-choice lineup, de Boer settled on a back line – from left to right – of Franco Escobar, Fernando Meza, Anton Walkes and Mo Adams. The foursome had never before played in a match together before and only began training in this formation on Sunday. Given all the circumstances, it’s a bit remarkable that Atlanta gave up just one goal to Motagua, who fired in 30 crosses and put six of their 12 shot attempts on-frame. Veteran goalkeeper Brad Guzan was forced to make five saves.
On the other end of the pitch, de Boer was satisfied with how his team performed on offense. The quality of the pitch and Motagua’s defense limited Josef Martinez’s touches on the ball, but the Venezuelan striker still put a chance away in the 34th minute, thanks to a feed and build-up from Pity Martinez.
De Boer said that Josef had a fever in the days leading up to the match and the manager considered him doubtful to play. Still, Martinez regained enough of his health to log a full 90 minutes. He scored once on two shots, and also tallied eight successful passes, two recoveries and a clearance.
“Yea, but you know, that’s how it is sometimes,” de Boer said of Josef’s lack of touches. “Sometimes you get only like two or three chances. Today he got two chances and scored one. So, I think you can be very pleased with his performance; that’s why we love him. Sometimes that’s how it is. Of course, he wants to dominate, but it was impossible on this pitch. Hopefully we can show a different Atlanta United at home.”
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)
De Boer was also impressed with the other Martinez who is a designated player on his roster, El Pity. In addition to Pity’s assist to Josef, he completed a team-high 25-of-29 passes for an 86 percent clip. Martinez also logged a recovery, two successful dribbles and two key passes in 81 minutes of play.
“I think he worked very hard and had his good moments, so I’m really pleased. Also, when he was out on the bench and supporting the players. I’m really pleased with his attitude, his performance,” de Boer said of Pity. “This was, of course, not the typical game you expect for Pity — this kind of soccer. But he worked his bollocks off. I think that’s the most important thing right now.”
The Five Stripes also saw a solid performance out of Franco Escobar, who was playing left back instead of where he usually plays, at center or right back. The Argentine notched a team-high 11 recoveries and four interceptions. Walkes and Meza each logged four clearances and Ezequiel Barco drew five fouls for the Five Stripes.
In the 81st minute, newcomer Adam Jahn entered the game for Pity and brought energy immediately, winning four duels and three aerials. Jahn was fifth in the USL Championship in scoring last season.
While de Boer was happy with the overall performance his club put forth in Honduras, he knows that they’re capable of more and hopes to see that in the second leg, on Feb. 25 at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, Georgia.
“We can play more of our own style of play. We can play between lines,” de Boer said. “I want to see a United at home that’s dominating, playing attractive football… The style we always want to see on our home stage.”