Atlanta United earns crucial win at Alajuelense

Atlanta United's Ezequiel Barco celebrates after scoring in his team's Champions League game at Alajuelense in Costa Rica on Tuesday.
Atlanta United's Ezequiel Barco celebrates after scoring in his team's Champions League game at Alajuelense in Costa Rica on Tuesday.

Credit: Atlanta United

Credit: Atlanta United

First win for new manager Gabriel Heinze in his first game in charge

Atlanta United got its 2021 season off to a roaring start under new manager Gabriel Heinze by defeating Alajuelense 1-0 in the first leg of its Champions League series on Tuesday in Costa Rica.

The win didn’t come in a predicted narrative but didn’t surprise Heinze.

“I’m not surprised at all,” Heinze said. “I think our players fought until the end of the game.”

The winning goal came on a penalty kick that probably wasn’t deserved but was converted by Ezequiel Barco in the 50th minute.

Playing its first game in almost four months, Atlanta United prevailed despite playing with 10 men for 47 minutes because goalkeeper Brad Guzan received a red card in the 43rd minute. In came Rocco Rios Novo, an 18-year-old signed on a four-day contract on Monday. Helped by tremendous efforts by centerbacks Miles Robinson and Anton Walkes, Rios Novo made six saves to preserve the shutout against a team that hadn’t been beaten in its past 25 games.

It was also Atlanta United’s first win on the road in the Champions League. It was 0-3-1.

Atlanta United was outshot (17-8) but still managed to outpossess the hosts (51.3-48.7).

The return leg of the series is scheduled to be played on April 13 at Kennesaw State.

Heinze’s first lineup was composed of Guzan in goal with Robinson and Walkes as the centerbacks, George Bello and Brooks Lennon as the fullbacks, Santiago Sosa, Emerson Hyndman and Franco Ibarra as the central midfielders, Barco and Jake Mulraney as the wingers, and Lisandro Lopez as the sole striker. It marked the debuts of Sosa, Ibarra and Lopez. Josef Martinez and Jurgen Damm were among the players on the bench. Without Martinez and because Marcelino Moreno was serving a red card suspension from last year’s Champions League game, it meant Barco was the only Designated Player in the starting lineup.

Atlanta United created several good scoring chances. The best came in the 15th minute when Barco found Lopez in front of the goal but he scuffed the shot wide.

Guzan was called upon several times, most notably in the 33rd minute when Alajuelense quickly took a free kick before Atlanta United’s players were ready. Guzan came out of the box on the left side to push the attacker wide enough to make the shooting angle impossible.

Everything changed for Atlanta United in the 43rd minute when Barco hit a bad pass behind Atlanta United’s defense. Guzan came out to try to break up the attack and instead took out Johan Venegas about 20 yards from goal. The referee brought out a yellow card but then changed his mind and gave Guzan a red card, reducing Atlanta United to 10 men for the remainder of the game and forcing Heinze to bring on Rios Novo. The red card means Guzan will miss next week’s return game. Mulraney was subbed off so that Rios Novo could be subbed on.

“What I told to Rocco is that he should enjoy this,” Heinze said. “It was his moment.”

It was a solid first 43 minutes for Atlanta United, which was dominating possession (65%) and was outshooting Alajuelense (6-3), as well as shots on goal (3-1).

Playing down a man, Heinze said he wanted Atlanta United to play more narrow, giving space to the sides, in order to protect the center of the field and penalty box.

Instead of playing for the draw, Atlanta United began the second half attacking and got its reward when a cross by Bello was blocked by an Alajuelense’s player’s hand. A penalty kick was called though the player kept pointing to his bloody face as evidence that the ball hit him there and not on his outstretched arm. A slow-motion replay shown later in the game proved that the ball did hit the player’s face. But that didn’t matter at the time. Barco took the penalty and scored, though it could be argued that Alajuelense goalkeeper Leonel Moreira should have saved it because it appeared to go through his hands as it rolled into the right corner in the 50th minute.

Rios Novo’s first test came in the 58th minute when he dove down to his right to save a free kick. He couldn’t catch the hard shot cleanly. While jumping on the rebound he was hit in the head by an onrushing Alajuelense player.

Heinze brought on Martinez for Lopez in the 67th minute in another sign that his team wasn’t going to bunker and protect its lead. Heinze wanted another goal.

Alajuelense kept searching for the tying goal and forced Rios Novo into another save in the 75th minute when he had to quickly move to his right to cleanly catch a hard shot. He was called upon again in the 80th minute when he punched away another hard shot. And he cleaned up a self-created mess when he dropped a save only to clear away the ball in the third minute of stoppage time.

“It was a very difficult game for all the circumstances,” Rios Novo said. “The team had no other option than to come together like that.”

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