Pity Martinez on Sunday said Atlanta United was going to defeat Club America and win the Campeones Cup.
Frank de Boer on Tuesday said he could feel how badly Atlanta United wanted to win its second trophy.
On Wednesday, the Five Stripes did just that.
A surgical sequence capped by Emerson Hyndman, a once-in-a-career strike by Jeff Larentowicz and a redemptive penalty kick by Josef Martinez were enough to lift Atlanta United past Club America, arguably the most successful club in the Western Hemisphere, 3-2 on Wednesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
It’s not just that Atlanta United became the first MLS team since 1998 to defeat one from LIGA MX with a trophy on the line. It’s that playing with five new starters, Atlanta United outslugged a team that rolled out its first-choice lineup and a history of more than 40 trophies that Atlanta United can only dream of one day reaching.
“This was a man’s game,” de Boer said afterward, in a moment of immense pride and not a tone-deaf reference to comments made earlier in the week about pay inequality. “You want to have these kinds of games almost every week.”
The men, to use de Boer’s word, were the unexpected: seldom-used goalkeeper Alec Kann, the vet Larentowicz, the quiet Darlington Nagbe, the towering Flo Pogba, the shifty Dion Pereira, the efficient Hyndman, the crafty Pity Martinez and the eager Josef Martinez.
The stadium, with more than 40,000 tickets sold and distributed, rocked throughout the night as the mix of the red and black of Atlanta United supporters and the yellow and blue of Club America supporters oohed and awed at the non-stop action.
Kann, who got the start because de Boer wanted to reward him and attempts to do so twice before had failed because of sickness and weather, made a leaping save to poke away a header by Club America legend Paul Aguilar in the third minute.
“It was nice, confidence-wise, to make an early save and not let us go into a hole starting out against a very good team,” Kann said. “Once that happened it felt like you were in the game.”
It appeared as if Club America was truly coming to win another trophy, as manager Miguel Herrera said numerous times on Tuesday.
But then Nagbe does what he has done most of his career: he found space in the middle of the pitch that perhaps only he could see. He passed the ball to Pereira, who one-timed a pass between two Club America defenders and into space for Hyndman to run onto. The loanee from Bournemouth didn’t miss, hitting the ball with the outside of his right foot and into the lower right corner. Atlanta United had its 1-0 lead.
“We wanted to start off well and that goal allowed us to do that,” Hyndman said.
Club America snapped out of its doldrum.
Renata Ibarra rattled the crossbar with a shot that should have been put into the goal in the ninth minute.
Five minutes later, Ibarra got his goal when Roger Martinez easily beat Franco Escobar to the end line and put in a cross that Ibarra put into the roof of the net to tie the game at 1.
Club America continued its pressure as Atlanta United worked on how to regain control.
Atlanta United started in the 3-4-2-1 formation it has used for the past few games.
Atlanta United thought Los Aguilas would sit back, which is the tactic most of Atlanta United’s opponent use in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Instead, Club America rolled out a 4-2-4 formation whose purpose was to create and win one-on-one battles. Martinez won his against Escobar on the first goal. Ibarra twice won two of his first battles, though only one paid off.
Atlanta United countered by dropping Larentowicz into the back line, turning a back three of Escobar, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Pogba into a back four. The move left Nagbe and Hyndman alone in the center of the pitch.
But it worked.
Atlanta United started winning more and more of the one-on-one battles.
But it kept wasting the chances it created.
The most egregious came when Josef Martinez’s poorly taken penalty kick was saved in the 40th minute by Club America goalkeeper Oscar Jimenez. It was his second missed penalty kick this season. Pity Martinez won the penalty.
Twelve minutes into the second half, against the run of play, Club America grabbed a 2-1 lead on a goal by Roger Martinez on a corner kick that Atlanta United failed to defend. It was an example of mental lapses made by several players, at the same time, that have plagued the team for its two-plus seasons in MLS.
But Atlanta United quickly found its focus, and the spark came from Larentowicz, who has preached focus in practice and in games since the first training camp in Bradenton, Fla. in 2017.
The moment truly came from nothing.
The sequence started with Julian Gressel whipping in a cross from the right. Club America didn’t clear it well. The ball came to Nagbe near the top of the box. He turned and saw Larentowicz a few yards behind him. Larentowicz said he told Nagbe to shoot. Nagbe instead dropped off the ball and shielded his defender.
Larentowicz passed on a chance to take a similar shot in the first half.
He didn’t pass this time.
“I told myself I was going to try to score,” he said.
The 36-year-old put his laces through the ball, sending it screaming across the penalty box and into the upper left corner of the goal in the 59th minute. Jimenez’s only movement was to flap his arms in frustration as the ball hit the net.
Club America wasn’t the same after that wonder strike.
Atlanta United kept applying pressure, kept winning one-on-one battles until Pogba, of all people, was taken down in the penalty box by Guido Rodriguez in the 64th minute.
Josef Martinez again stepped to the spot.
This time he didn’t miss, slamming the kick into the same corner as Larentowicz’s shot. Though Jimenez guessed correctly, the ball was hit with such ferocity he couldn’t get a hand on it.
“I’m not worried about it, he’s so eager to score,” de Boer said. “I know he’s the best penalty taker.”
Seven minutes later, Club America’s Bruno Valdez was given his second yellow card when he pulled down Josef Martinez on a breakaway.
Atlanta United only had to hold on for the final 18 minutes to win the Campeones Cup.
The celebration was intense. Larentowicz tried to give the trophy to captain Michael Parkhurst, who didn’t play. Parkhurst declined, allowing Larentowicz to raise the slender bauble over his head as his teammates embraced the moment behind him.
Atlanta United won. Just as Pity Martinez said they would. Just as de Boer felt they could.
“We made major steps forward, not only for Atlanta United but as a club from the United States,” de Boer said.
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