Alajuelense one of many challenges for Atlanta United

Atlanta United midfielder Eric Remedi #5 dribbles the ball during the first half of the first leg match between Atlanta United FC and Club America in the quarterfinal round of the 2020 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, Mexico, on Wednesday March 11, 2020. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)
Atlanta United midfielder Eric Remedi #5 dribbles the ball during the first half of the first leg match between Atlanta United FC and Club America in the quarterfinal round of the 2020 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, Mexico, on Wednesday March 11, 2020. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

Credit: Eric Remedi

Credit: Eric Remedi

Champions League draw wasn’t kind to the Five Stripes

There were two opponents that most teams in Pot A of Wednesday’s Champions League tournament draw hoped to avoid in Pot B.

One was Mexico’s Club Leon.

Atlanta United dodged that. Leon is now Toronto’s, or Forge’s, problem.

The other was Costa Rica’s Alajuelense.

They are now Atlanta United’s problem. And they possibly are a very big problem.

Alajuelense not only won last year’s CONCACAF League tournament, it is dominating Costa Rica’s first division with 17 points from its first seven games in the Clausura portion of the schedule after lapping the field by nine points in the Apertura. It has scored 15 goals and allowed three in the Clausura. Its roster includes Bryan Ruiz (six goals), a player who has given the U.S. fits when it plays Costa Rica’s national team, and Jonathan Moya (12 goals).

So, there’s that.

And there are these ingredients:

The first game will be on the road in Costa Rica sometime from April 6-8. Atlanta United failed to win either of its first two road games in previous appearances in the Champions League. It was beaten 3-1 at Herediano (also in Costa Rica) in 2019 and tied Motagua (in Honduras) 1-1 last year.

This will be the first game for Atlanta United under new manager Gabriel Heinze, which can present several challenges in itself with regard to tactics, roles, communication, as the staff learns the players and the players learn the staff.

The return-leg site hasn’t yet been announced by Atlanta United. It could be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It could be at Kennesaw State, which hosted the return legs against Herediano and Motagua.

The site, though, isn’t that important. Atlanta United has experience and had success in both venues.

Of all the challenges, though, this one may be most important for Atlanta United’s success: There may not be fans in the stands. CONCACAF hasn’t announced the game protocols.

Atlanta United doesn’t play particularly well when there are no fans in the stands.

Think back to last summer’s MLS tournament in Orlando. Three scoreless performances. Three very poor performances. One manager soon jettisoned. Players later mentioned how odd the experience was. They mentioned the difficulty in finding motivation at times.

The team found its motivation and seemed used to the experience when they returned to Orlando in December to finish its Champions League quarterfinals series against Club America with a 1-0 victory.

A difference between then and the soon-to-be present is quite a few starters who competed in that game either no longer are on the team or are reportedly on their way out: Franco Escobar and Adam Jahn are gone; Fernando Meza and Eric Remedi soon may be.

Others who may be counted on against Alajuelense weren’t in Orlando: Josef Martinez, Brooks Lennon, and Marcelino Moreno, to name a possible few.

If Atlanta United wants to increase the possibility of advancing to the quarterfinals for the third consecutive year, it likely will need to get a positive result on the road. Alajuelense is unbeaten at home during the Clausura (2-0-1) after going 5-2-1 in the Apertura part of the schedule.

Put it all together, and Alajuelense will be a challenge for Atlanta United.

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