Atlanta United’s mountain to overcome is taller than Cerro de la Silla, which looms over Estadio BBVA Bancomer, because it will take a 3-0 deficit into the second leg of next week’s Champions League quarterfinal game against Monterrey.
A penalty kick from Nicolas Sanchez in the first half, and a pair of goals in a four-minute span near the end of the game — a rocket from Dorlan Pabon and a goal by Jesus Gallardo — were enough to carry Rayados past the Five Stripes in Wednesday’s first leg on a cold night in Monterrey. The second leg will be played on March 13 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“We are very sad, we are disappointed,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said, “At the 80th minute we were losing 1-0 and wanted a good result to take back home. In the next round is obviously going to be very difficult to play a dangerous team like Monterrey. It’s going to be very tough but we are going to give it our everything and see what happens.”
The loss was the fourth by an MLS team in the first leg of the quarterfinals, following defeats by Sporting KC, New York Red Bulls and Houston.
As has been the case in two of Atlanta United’s previous three games, the offense was lacking. Some was due to the 25 fouls committed by Monterrey’s players to break up counterattacks before they could start. Pity Martinez was fouled 10 times. De Boer said they spoke with the fourth official and the players spoke to the ref but they can’t influence the game. Brad Guzan said it was part of Monterrey’s plan to foul Pity Martinez.
“It was tough for Pity tonight, I mean they hacked him every time he got the ball,” captain Michael Parkhurst said. “You hope the refereeing takes care of your players like that because persistent infringement was on display tonight but apparently that’s not a case in CONCACAF.”
Some was just a lack of synchronization between players, resulting in Atlanta United putting just one shot on goal, giving the team just three shots on goal in the past two games.
De Boer selected most of the players who started Sunday’s 2-0 loss at D.C. United. The lone change was Pity Martinez for Hector Villalba. The remaining starters were goalkeeper Guzan, centerbacks Miles Robinson, Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, left wingback Brek Shea and right wingback Mikey Ambrose (in for the injured Julian Gressel), holding midfielder Eric Remedi, midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Ezequiel Barco and striker Josef Martinez.
Monterrey countered with arguably its best lineup, particularly strong up front with Pabon, Rogelio Funes Mori, Maxi Meza and Aviles Hurtado.
Monterrey generated the first good chance when Sanchez’s header crashed off the crossbar. The shot came from a curling free kick by Miguel Layun in the 11th minute. The play started with a foul by Remedi. Sanchez was being defended by Josef Martinez.
Monterrey got its first goal in the 17th minute on a penalty kick by Sanchez. Gonzalez Pirez was whistled for knocking over Pabon in the penalty box in what looked like a soft call considering unpenalized tackles that were to come. Sanchez put his shot to Guzan’s left. He guessed correctly, but couldn’t stop the shot.
Pity Martinez forced a save with a free kick a minute later, but Monterrey came back down and put a cross across the face of the goal. However, there was no one there to tap it in.
In the 43rd minute, Pity Martinez and Josef Martinez had a two-on-two, but Pity Martinez passed to his right as Josef Martinez ran left and the attack stopped.
Frequently in the first half, when Atlanta United started a counter, the player with the ball was chopped down. Sometimes a foul was called. Sometimes it wasn’t. Pity Martinez was fouled four times, Josef Martinez once and Barco once.
Atlanta United appeared to run out of gas as the game went on, which isn’t surprising considering 10 of the 11 starters played on Sunday. Also, de Boer didn’t use a sub until the 90th minute.
De Boer said he considered making subs earlier but didn’t see any issues because the players were working hard to preserve the deficit.
“We didn’t have that problem at that moment,” de Boer said. “We were really up to a good result. One-nil down going into the second leg isn’t a bad result. We lost the game in nine minutes. That’s very hard for everybody. We have to learn from this.”
Monterrey took advantage of the fatigue.
Monterrey increased its lead to 2-0 on a long shot from Pablon that crashed into the upper right corner of Guzan’s goal in the 80th minute. Nagbe moved to close down Pablon, who created enough space to shoot by quickly shifting the ball from his right foot to his left.
“I don’t know if it was tired legs or what ... we do a poor job of closing the ball down, not holding our feet and at this level, these guys, they will punish you,” Guzan said.
Gallardo, unmarked at the back post, received a cross from the end line and followed with a hard shot from a tight angle in the 84th minute. The play started with a counterattack with Atlanta United’s defenders out of position.
“The last 15 minutes were not good enough and we put ourselves into a big hole,” Parkhurst said.
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