Atlanta United faces tough challenge in Alajuelense

Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan #1 saves the ball during the first half of the first leg match between Atlanta United FC and Club America in the quarterfinal round of the 2020 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, Mexico, on Wednesday March 11, 2020. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)
Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan #1 saves the ball during the first half of the first leg match between Atlanta United FC and Club America in the quarterfinal round of the 2020 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, Mexico, on Wednesday March 11, 2020. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

Atlanta United will start new manager Gabriel Heinze’s tenure with a difficult challenge when it faces Alajuelense in the first round of the Champions League Tuesday in Costa Rica.

First, it’s Heinze’s first game. Tactics are still being taught. Details communicated. Expectations learned.

Second, Alajuelense, unbeaten since November, is the best club in Costa Rica and perhaps the best club in Central America. It has already played 16 games this season to Atlanta United’s zero.

Third, Atlanta United’s gameday lineup could feature several players who are new to the team and it won’t include Marcelino Moreno, who is out because of a red card from the team’s Champions League win against Club America last season. It remains to be seen if striker Josef Martinez is fit enough and confident enough to start after missing most of last season following a knee injury sustained in the first game of the league season in 2020.

Lastly, it’s a knockout tournament. If the Five Stripes can’t secure a positive result, next week’s second leg at Kennesaw State may not matter.

“We are excited for this new challenge,” Heinze said on Monday.

Goalkeeper Brad Guzan was a bit more detailed in his assessment, saying “The cards are almost stacked against us. We’ve experienced in past Champions leagues where we’ve come down to Central America and haven’t gotten results. And this team is better than the teams we’ve played in this competition in the past.”

Atlanta United was beaten by Herediano 3-1 in Costa Rica in 2019 in previous manager Frank de Boer’s first game and tied Motagua 1-1 in Honduras in 2020. The team was able to advance to the quarterfinals both times.

But, as Guzan said, Alajuelense is better than those previous two opponents.

Alajuelense is 9-0-7 in the Clausura portion of the schedule after going 12-3-1 in the Apertura. They’ve scored 67 goals and allowed just 27. Six players have scored at least three goals.

Guzan said what makes Alajuelense’s attack so dangerous is the number of attackers it gets into the penalty box. The team typically plays in a 4-4-2 formation and features two target strikers, Marcel Hernandez and either Johan Venegas or Jurgens Montenegro, that will link up with each other, the midfielders, the wingers or even the fullbacks, who play in the wide spaces because the wingers tend to play narrowly. When an Alajuelense player receives the ball, he can have as many as four targets in the penalty box. Pulling the strings is midfielder Bryan Ruiz, a standout on Costa Rica’s national team.

“We will have to defend,” Guzan said. “We will have to win second balls. We will have to win first balls in the box.”

To score against Alajuelense’s stingy defense will require Atlanta United’s players to find the correct spots and score when they get the ball in those spots.

“It’s one of the strongest points of this team and it’s not the only one,” Heinze said. “For us, it’s a great motivation to play this team.”

Atlanta United does have at least one advantage, one referenced by Alajuelense manager Andres Carevic on Monday: there is very little film to study. Because the team hasn’t played any real games, Carevic can’t look for tendencies. In the preseason events that were either broadcast or could be seen live, Heinze used combinations of players that likely won’t be seen on Tuesday.

“I don’t think the coach is going to change the way he thinks because he doesn’t have enough information about us,” Heinze said.

Guzan said another advantage for the club is that it went through a long, intense preseason. The six-week runup is the longest the team has had to prepare for the Champions League. Heinze squeezed every second from it, too, to listen to the players each week.

“We’ve come out stronger on the other side,” Guzan said. “Tonight’s when we will measure exactly where we are.”

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