October 19, 2019 Atlanta - Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer reacts in the second half during the first round of the MLS playoffs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, October 19, 2019. Atlanta United won 1-0 over the New England Revolution. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Atlanta United limps into ‘difficult game’ against Club America

Wednesday’s game against Club America in Estadio Azteca may be the toughest Atlanta United will play in its developing history.

The game, scheduled for a broadcast on FS2, is the first leg of a quarterfinal series in the Champions League.

The opponent is one of the better clubs in the Western Hemisphere. The stadium seats more than 80,000 and is a bucket-list item for players and supporters because of its history of World cups and other events. Club America no doubt remembers last year’s loss to Atlanta United in the Campeones Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. And the altitude of more than 7,000 feet will be a factor.

But Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer and the players are there to do a job: They said they want to try to win. If not, a draw is a good result. If not, get at least an away goal to bring back to next week’s second leg at Kennesaw State.

“Everybody knows this is going to be a very difficult game for us,” de Boer said. 

Both teams will be affected by numerous injuries. Atlanta United is down to three healthy centerbacks, not ideal for a team that has started with three in the back in three of its four games. Club America’s list of injured players is as deep and includes midfielder Nicolas Benedetti and centerback Sebastian Caceres.

“We are a little thin right now due to injuries, but we’ve picked up results in the past week or two,” Atlanta United fullback Brooks Lennon said. “We have the capability of going down there and getting a positive result. The key is to recover well and make sure we are fully focused on the game plan, and I think we can pick up a good result.”

Along with the injuries, both are playing amid congested schedules. Atlanta United defeated Cincinnati 2-1 on March 7. It will host Sporting KC on March 14. Club America drew with rival Pumas UNAM 3-3 on March 6. It will host Cruz Azul on Sunday. Atlanta United will host Club America on March 18 and then will play at Chicago on March 21. Club America will host Leon the same day.

With the glut of games, de Boer said he prefers to play the starters as long as they can go Wednesday and make rotations for Saturday’s game against Sporting KC.

“We know that Kansas City is in good form,” de Boer said. “The way they play, they press a lot of teams. We have to be ready also for that. It’s also very important. Everybody is very excited to play Azteca and a club like Club America.”

The unknown is how the high altitude might affect Atlanta United’s players, especially on the Azteca’s big pitch. It is thin air, which means slightly less oxygen. De Boer said they haven’t discussed using oxygen tanks, which NFL teams have done when playing there. 

De Boer said his players will have to choose their moments to expend energy carefully, which signals that the team may adopt a similar defensive approach as was used in the Round of 16 game against Motagua in Honduras. That plan was not to take many chances, stay compact on defense and get a manageable result. The teams drew 1-1, and Atlanta United won the second leg 3-0 to advance to take on the challenge that is Club America in Estadio Azteca.

“We don’t have to make the game,” de Boer said. “They have to score.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.