Atlanta United improved to 2-0-1 in the preseason with a battling draw against Swedish side IF Elfsborg on Saturday at IMG Academy.
A goal from Pity Martinez, his third in the past two games, in the 55th minute was offset by one from Elfsborg in the 67th minute.
The game felt more like a CONCACAF Champions League warm-up than a friendly, with at least seven yellow cards, one red card to an Elfsborg player, hard tackles, many of them against Ezequiel Barco, shoves and choice words between players.
“It was a real game, quite hard some times,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “It’s good because you want that kind of intensity. People don’t think when it goes easy and you have a real game that suddenly the intensity is there when you aren’t used to it.”
Elfsborg, which plays in Sweden’s first division, pressured Atlanta United throughout, often deep into Atlanta United’s half. Even before seven subs came on in the 82nd minute, the team rarely had the ball on Elfsborg’s side of the field for the game’s final 12 minutes. It was Atlanta United’s third game in less than a week, so de Boer said that after 60 minutes it was evident that his team’s quality dropped.
Sometimes Atlanta United broke the pressure beautifully with Emerson Hyndman and Eric Remedi combining well in the middle, or with Martinez and Barco combining well with fullbacks on either side. But there quite a few times when Atlanta United’s first team couldn’t break through. De Boer said sometimes there were communication issues about who should defend Elfsborg’s fullbacks. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan said there were times the team could have been tidier with the ball.
Atlanta United started with Guzan, centerbacks Franco Escobar, Miles Robinson and Fernando Meza, with Brooks Lennon at right wingback and Edgar Castillo at left wingback. Remedi started at defensive midfielder, with Hyndman just ahead of him. Pity Martinez, Barco and Josef Martinez were the front three. Castillo was replaced by Jake Mulraney at the half because he took a knock to his ribs. Castillo suffered two broken ribs while playing with New England, and de Boer said they didn’t see the sense in risking him in the second half.
Atlanta United wanted to work on sending players on runs behind Elfsborg’s defense, but the opponents pressed them so deeply in their own half that it made utilizing that tactic difficult.
The Five Stripes’ best scoring chances in the first half usually were generated from fouls suffered by Barco around 22 yards from goal. One resulted in a Martinez free kick into the wall. Another led to Barco’s shot skipping off the top of the crossbar.
Atlanta United was able to finally use its speed on the flanks in the opening seconds of the second half when Lennon ran onto a pass. His shot was blocked.
Atlanta United broke through when Martinez jumped on a forced turnover, took a few dribbles before switching the ball to his weaker right foot and burying a shot in the lower right corner. It was a deserved goal from the Designated Player who played several quality crosses, passes and free kicks in the first half.
“I think if you see how he started this preseason, from the first moment he’s very active, very concentrated, helping others,” de Boer said. “That’s why he’s in this shape. He’s worked very hard for it. Now he gets the payoff with scoring goals.”
Elfsborg answered with a long pass down the left, followed by a cross to the back post, where two players were defended by one. The shot from a tight angle eluded Alec Kann, who came on to start the second half for Guzan.
Atlanta United will return home Sunday. Its next game will be at Birmingham on Feb. 8. It will open its season with a game at Motagua in Honduras in the Champions League on Feb. 18.
“It was a proper game, for sure,” Guzan said. “It was a good way to finish the two weeks down here in every sense.”
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