Conway’s debut goal is positive from a rough situation

Atlanta United’s 2020 playing season is, mercifully, over.

A year that started with the hope of more goals, more highlights and more trophies ended with the team technically manager-less having shed itself of one and playing out a string with an interim, few goals and few highlights. Oh, and no trophies. Not even close to winning trophies, as a matter of fact.

The final game was positive: a 1-0 win over Club America in Orlando in the Champions League quarterfinal series thanks to Jackson Conway’s first goal in his first appearance with the senior team. And Atlanta United created chances, including three from close range that were saved or cleared within a few seconds in the second half. But the one goal scored was it and because the team lost the first leg 3-0, it is done in the tournament and playing games this year. Wednesday’s result was just Club America’s second loss to an MLS team in its history in the tournament.

“We asked the group to install a bit of pride back in the club,” interim manager Stephen Glass said. “I think they did that, no doubt. We were deserved winners.”

Atlanta United’s starting 11 featured the debut of Erik Lopez, along with striker Adam Jahn, wingers Jake Mulraney and Ezequiel Barco, Emerson Hyndman and Eric Remedi, fullbacks Franco Escobar and George Bello, centerbacks Miles Robinson and Fernando Meza, and goalkeeper Brad Guzan. The team was without starters Jurgen Damm, Brooks Lennon and Mo Adams. Marcelino Moreno started on the bench.

As they should have been because they were chasing the result, Atlanta United came out and looked lively.

Lopez put the first shot on goal, which was saved in the 12th minute, followed by one from Escobar after he was put into space by Barco in the 15th minute.

Lopez connected with Barco in the 25th minute when he headed down a 30-yard pass from Escobar. Barco ran onto the ball in the penalty box but his low shot was saved.

But, as has been the cast most of the season, the team couldn’t turn its three shots into goals, leaving it 45 minutes to try to score three goals. For context, it scored at least three goals just twice this season and hasn’t scored three goals in a half this season.

Glass brought on Moreno and Erick Torres in the 62nd minute for Barco and Jahn to try put a dent in the three-goal deficit. Glass said he thought Barco sustained a minor injury to his knee on his headed shot in the first half. Glass said he though Barco earned a penalty kick on that play. Barco was subbed out because he said there was no reason to risk him.

Two shots by Torres were stopped on the line in the 68th minute, continuing his poor luck this season. And then a third, all taken within a few seconds, by Mulraney was headed off the line.

“If there’s a diff goalkeeper than perhaps the game is more lively in the last 10 minutes,” Glass said.

Jack Gurr, making his debut after signing a short-term contract for the game, came on for Lopez in the 76th minute. Conway, who signed a Homegrown Contract that will go into effect in 2021, came on in the 80th minute.

Conway got his goal in the 83rd minute, giving Atlanta United a bit of hope. It was a hard header into the corner set up by passes by Bello and Hyndman.

But, because it’s 2020 and good things are hard to come by, Moreno was given a red card in the 91st minute after he kicked out at a Club America player who had tackled him hard from behind during the play. Glass said he thought the tackle against Moreno was also worthy of a red card.

Now, the team will turn its attention to naming its next manager, reportedly Gabriel Heinze, and strengthening its roster through free agency, which opened Wednesday, and transfers, which can start in January. The team needs improvement at defensive midfielder and depth at left fullback, left midfielder and striker.

Because the team is in next year’s Champions League, it will likely open training camp in January. The MLS season is supposed to start sometime in March.

Until then, the team must ponder what went wrong: the injury to Josef Martinez in the first league game, the inability of previous manager Frank de Boer to turn offensive talent into goals, the inability of either de Boer or Glass to get the best out of either Barco or Pity Martinez before he was sold in September.

It has been a long year.

“Been a crazy year for everybody whether they involved in soccer or life,” Guzan said. “We looked at tonight as a separate challenge, as an opportunity to play a good team and to leave a positive feeling, a positive taste in our mouth and for whoever is going to be the next coach. A chance to show that if guys want to be there, they can be counted on. Tonight’s performance showed that.”

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