Atlanta United falls flat in CCL debut as MLS has mixed first-leg results

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John Duran
The reigning MLS Cup champions went to Costa Rica and endured a painful lesson in just how tricky the Concacaf Champions League can be

As Arthur Blank sat in the tiny Estadio Eladio Rosabal Cordero, he probably wondered how a team that calls an 8,700-seat stadium home could cause problems for his Atlanta United. The billionaire learned quickly that when it comes to the Concacaf Champions League knockout rounds, things are rarely easy for MLS teams.

It's a lesson that four of five MLS teams in CCL action this week were reminded of, with Sporting Kansas City being the only MLS team so win comfortably. Ironically, Sporting KC was the only one of the five to be facing a Mexican opponent, albeit a struggling one in Toluca.

Toronto FC was the only MLS team to be effectively eliminated after the first leg, falling 4-0 to Panamanian side Independiente. The Houston Dynamo rode a DaMarcus Beasley winner to a 1-0 road win against Guatemalan side Guastatoya, while the New York Red Bulls shook off some poor finishing to eventually post a comfortable 2-0 win against Dominican minnows Atletico Pantoja.

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Atlanta was expected to be the fourth MLS team to secure a first-leg victory in this week's Round of 16 action, but Herediano had other plans, posting a 3-1 victory over the MLS champions. Atlanta United faced the reigning Costa Rica champions and looked nothing like the team that dominated the competition on the way to an MLS Cup title last December. Instead of the stingy defense we saw then, Atlanta's back-line was shaky, with Leandro Gonzalez Pirez turning in a woeful performance. Instead of the normally automatic finishing of reigning MLS scoring king Josef Martinez, Atlanta United fans watched their star striker squander the two best chances he saw on a frustrating night.

Herediano deserves credit for punishing Atlanta United's mistakes, including Julian Gressel's lax defending on Herediano's third goal, a second-half tally that could prove costly when the team's return to Atlanta next week for the second leg.

Atlanta United head coach Frank De Boer couldn't have been happy with his team played. He has been emphasizing defensive structure and sharp passing in his attempt to put his stamp on the team Tata Martino lead to a title just two months ago, but neither were on display on Thursday. The 3-4-3 setup De Boer deployed did succeed in enjoying healthy stretches of possession, but Atlanta's transition defending was abysmal, and passing in the final third was disappointing.

If there was a bright spot for Atlanta, it was the official debut of Gonzalo 'Pity' Martinez, who showed the quality that made him a Copa Libertadores winner and South American player of the year with River Plate. What was also shown was the lack of familiarity between Martinez and his teammates, who struggled to click in the final third, which cost Atlanta United the chance to punish a Herediano defense that was capable of being breached.

There were far more forgettable performances for Atlanta than memorable ones. Ezequiel Barco was largely invisible, a worrisome 2019 debut for a player who enters the year trying to prove that his disappointing 2018 was just a blip. Gressel was responsible for Atlanta's lone goal, sending a goal-bound shot that was deflected past Herediano's goalkeeper, but he had a poor night otherwise.

Then there was 17-year-old George Bello, the Atlanta United academy product and the apple of the eye of so many Atlanta fans who are hoping he can slide into the starting lineup and blossom into a standout and U.S. national team option. He struggled badly,  not just defending, but in the attack and with his positioning. It was the kind of night that he'll want to forget, but it was also the kind of night that is important for the development of a clearly talented but still raw defender. He is a player who is carrying some unrealistic expectations heading into the season, but a player who should get his opportunities to grow on the job.

As disappointing as the night was for Atlanta, all is not lost. The MLS Cup winners aren't staring at an impossible scoreline like Toronto FC, which suffered a brutal 4-0 loss to Panamanian side Independiente on Tuesday. No, Atlanta returns home knowing it can advance with a 2-0 victory, or win by three or more goals. That sort of result is well within Atlanta's reach, but it will require sharper passing, better finishing, and above all, sharper defending than Atlanta showed on Thursday.

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