Atlanta United midfielder Darlington Nagbe, the man on the match, works the ball against Monterrey defender Jonathan Gonzalez in a Concacaf Champions league quarterfinal match on Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Atlanta United hoping to continue energy shown against Monterrey

Disappointed that it didn’t advance in the Champions League, Atlanta United will now turn its attention back to the MLS season and the goal of defending its title.

But will Atlanta United truly be back to it swashbuckling self on Sunday against Philadelphia, or was Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over Monterrey in the Champions League simply a flash of appreciated aggression in what has been a mostly lifeless season so far?

Atlanta United scored just the one goal, and had just five shots on goal, but it was playing a supremely talented Rayados team that needed only to play defense to advance to the tournament semifinals, which it did.

The key is the determination the team showed, something that had been lacking in a 2-0 loss at D.C. United, a 3-0 loss at Monterrey in the first leg and a 1-1 draw with Cincinnati.

“It all starts what that energy they showed tonight,” manager Frank de Boer said Wednesday.  “I’m very pleased with the performance.”

After receiving a few boos following the “unacceptable” draw with Cincinnati, de Boer met with the players on Monday to discuss making a few tweaks to try to get the offense to more closely resemble how the team played the previous two years when it scored 140 goals in 68 league games.

On offense, Ezequiel Barco put in his second outstanding performance this season. The midfielder, who seemed to have been given permission to roam the midfield, made aggressive, vertical runs at defenders. He hit line-splitting passes. It was similar to his performance against Herediano in the first round of the Champions League.

“We are still adapting to the style of play of our coaching staff,” he said. “This is something again that will help us going forward.”

Pity Martinez played underneath striker Josef Martinez, giving him someone to work off and to occupy the attention of the centerbacks in front of him. When defenders dropped off, Pity Martinez uncorked two long-range shots. One required an outstanding save. 

Josef Martinez got two good looks against Monterrey, converting one in the second half. It was the third goal this season for the reigning MLS MVP

With Pity Martinez underneath or sometimes beside Josef Martinez, Darlington Nagbe played slightly higher up the pitch, filling a hole that had been in the formation for four of the previous five games.

The wingbacks, Julian Gressel and Mike Ambrose, continued to push forward.

In all, it seemed like good signs for the rest of the MLS season and the U.S. Open Cup.

“A performance to build on,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said. “Disappointed not to advance, but considering how the first month has gone it was a positive step today. Build on that and win on Sunday.”

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