Atlanta United’s first pursuit of a trophy this season is over.
The Five Stripes, the defending MLS champions, were knocked out of the Champions League in the quarterfinal round by Monterrey on Wednesday with a 1-0 win in the game, but 3-1 aggregate loss in the two-game series. Josef Martinez scored Atlanta United’s goal in front of an announced attendance of 40,048 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“I just spoke to the guys and gave them a really big compliment with the energy they put tonight in this game,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “This is the energy you want to see, what the fans expect to see.”
Atlanta United had hopes of becoming the first MLS team to win this version of the Champions League, but a combination of a bad draw that matched them up against Monterrey, arguably the best team in the Western Hemisphere, not enough time to learn manager Frank de Boer’s new formation and tactics as well as each other, and a bad final 10 minutes in the first leg in which Monterrey scored two goals, combined to prematurely end the pursuit.
“It was almost an impossible task tonight and we went out there and gave it all we had,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said. “They are a very good team and we talked about forgetting about the scoreline in the beginning of the game, just have a performance that is worthy o the star of the jersey of the fans of the stadium. Thought we went out tonight and did that.”
Atlanta United can now turn its attention to trying to make up points lost in its first two games in MLS when it hosts Philadelphia on Sunday. Atlanta United is 0-1-1 in the league this season.
De Boer again on Wednesday went with the core group of starters, most of whom started each of the previous five games. The only change was Jeff Larentowicz at centerback in place of the suspended Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, and Mike Ambrose, who has started two games at right wingback, moved to his natural left side at wingback in place of Brek Shea.
De Boer said on Tuesday that there would be tweaks made to the tactics to try to create more goal-scoring opportunities. Atlanta United had scored more than one goal in just one of its previous five games and been shut out twice.
The aggressiveness was there with Ezequiel Barco, Pity Martinez, Josef Martinez and the wingbacks taking turns making runs into spaces behind Monterrey’s defense.
Atlanta United came close to taking a 1-0 lead in the 10th minute when Barco threaded a pass through six defenders for Josef Martinez to run onto. As he reached the ball in the penalty box and swiped at it with his right foot, Monterrey goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero came out, dove to his right, reached out his right hand, and knocked away the weak shot.
De Boer changed the tactics again to create higher pressure on Monterrey’s defense, which resulted in more long balls hit by Monterrey. De Boer said his team handled those well.
Other than two free kicks in dangerous places, Atlanta United didn’t come close to scoring again until Julian Gressel put a pass across the face of Monterrey’s goal near the 57th minute. No one was there to tap it in.
Despite the emphasis on creating chances, Atlanta United still put just two shots on goal through 72 minutes, which was more of a sign of Monterrey’s 5-4-1 formation and talent (several of its players were called into the Mexican national team by former Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino).
The Rayados hit the crossbar twice in a span of seconds near the 73rd minute but couldn’t score.
Atlanta United attacked but Darlington Nagbe’s shot, which appeared destined for the lower left corner, was tipped out in the 75th minute.
After a change in formation to a 4-3-3, Atlanta United finally broke through in the 77th minute when Josef Martinez and Nagbe exchanged passes. The sequence ended with Martinez slamming a shot into the upper right corner from just a few yards out.
Atlanta United appeared to score in the 83rd minute when Nagbe put a shot into the corner, but it was waived off because of a foul committed by Josef Martinez before the shot.
The 40,048 was the smallest announced attendance for an Atlanta United game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The previous low was 41,012 for a U.S. Open Cup game against Chicago on June 20, 2018. While small for Atlanta United, it did set a record for the largest crowd ever to watch a U.S. Open Cup game.
“We are disappointed not to advance,” Parkhurst said. “We had high hopes going into this tournament. The performance down in Monterrey hurt us. You lose 3-0 away and it’s such a tall talk to try to overdo that against one of the best teams on the continent so now that it’s over the full focus is on MLS, righting that ship and making sure we get good performances.”
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