Following a 1-1 draw in the first leg, Atlanta United host Motagua in the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16. There are numerous factors favoring Atlanta United as they hope to move on and make good on their global claim.
Atlanta United fans and staff are constantly proclaiming how important it is for the club to be a global organization. Ownership has certainly backed that ambition up with first-class decisions and substantial investment, as well as significant domestic success. However, without international achievement, can the club really make such claims?
Tuesday provides Atlanta United with the perfect opportunity to knock off 17-time Honduran champion Motagua, advance to a possible matchup with mighty Mexican side, Club America, and stake their claim as a true contender in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Atlanta United achieved a 1-1 draw on the road a week ago thanks to Josef Martinez a goal and some resolute defending. That away goal means Atlanta only needs to keep a clean sheet or win by any score to advance. Considering what happened a year ago in the club’s first foray into international waters, this is a vastly improved second-leg situation.
Now, I don’t want to disparage Motagua, but Atlanta United are expected to win relatively easily. Motagua might be an experienced and in-form side, currently first in the Honduran Clausura, but Atlanta is the superior team with the superior players.
First and foremost, the Five Stripes host the match in Kennesaw where the club is undefeated and crushed Herediano 4-0 a year ago. The conservative tactics that playing on a bumpy field down in Honduras dictated should be out the window and the free-flowing Frank de Boer passing attack should return. Expect to see Atlanta United attempting to dominate the match from beginning to end.
In the cozy, 10,500-seat Fifth Third Bank Stadium, Atlanta United are able to feed off the energy of the crowd in a way that is unique to smaller stadiums. It seems as if the vocal supporters’ groups take-up a huge percentage of the crowd and, on what might be a chilly midweek match, could provide a lift in critical moments.
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Another huge factor is that the long list of absences should shrink this time around. In the first leg, Atlanta United missed Jake Mulraney, Manuel Castro, Miles Robinson, George Bello, and Matheus Rossetto, while Brooks Lennon couldn’t go a full 90 minutes.
Those out injured are still largely a question this week, but the foreign players should be able to factor in, either from the start or off the bench, and those that did play will be another week removed from preseason fitness, gaining their match readiness with every outing. De Boer has many more options. He will not have to call up players from the reserves to fill out the bench.
That flexibility creates some interesting selection choices. Atlanta United could go with a 3-5-2 or the defensive 4-3-3 from the first leg. De Boer seemingly preferred the back three last season, especially given the personnel he has available to him, and might look to implement it again this week to make the most of his attacking triumvirate, Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco and Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez.
Regardless of the formation, expect Atlanta United to take a very aggressive approach. The home field, change in mentality, and increased options off the bench should be enough for a comfortable win. And it will bring the club one step closer to establishing themselves on the global stage.