The MLS preseason continued today with a hard fought first match in the Carolina Challenge Cup which finished in a 2-1 score line in favor of Columbus Crew SC over Atlanta United.
Atlanta United head coach Tata Martino lined up his side with nearly the same personnel as the previous match vs. Chattanooga with Alec Kann, Greg Garza, Leandro González Pirez, Michael Parkhurst, Tyrone Mears, Chris McCann, Jeff Larentowicz, Miguel Almirón, Hector Villalba, and Kenwyne Jones. The one adjustment in the starting 11 was Josef Martinez stepping in for Yamil Asad, who did not dress today due to a minor calf contusion.
Martinez filled in a just behind striker Kenwyne Jones, which sent Miguel Almirón slightly more to the left flank. Fellow South American “Tito” Villalba remained on the right wing, placing all three of the club’s Designated Players in the attack for the very first time.
Mimicking the events of last week’s match, Atlanta United came out of the gate strong and netted an early goal just inside the sixth minute mark as a result of a Martinez/Villalba combination. Determined to repeat his goal-scoring performance from last week, Martinez darted in the box after feeding Villalba down the right side of penalty area. What ensued on the cross was eerily familiar – not only did Martinez head home his second-ever goal for Atlanta United, but in the same epic, diving fashion as his header against Chattanooga.
The rest of the 45 proved to be an exciting, but even battle. Because both clubs aim to play the same possession-oriented style with many of their attacks built from quick passing in their own defensive third. While Columbus and Atlanta conjured up a decent amount of chances, neither were able to execute and Atlanta United led by the single goal at the half.
Though still a tight competition, Crew SC looked the more polished side after the halfway mark and it paid off as Federico Higuain scored a brace in the span of five minutes to hand Columbus the 2-1 advantage.
Following the double concession, Atlanta made five changes in the second period, bringing on Mark Bloom, Julian Gressel, Jacob Peterson, Harrison Heath, and Andrew Carleton. Of the substitutions, Gressel made the most noticeable impact, sparking a few attacks from his physicality and tenacity, but in the end, ATL UTD was unable to produce an equalizer.
While Columbus seized the 2-1 victory, Atlanta United can be proud of a solid performance in their first encounter with MLS competition in just their second match as a team. Preseason is the time to construct a foundation, build the chemistry, and for Atlanta, just getting the whole team and coaching staff familiar with each other as they head into their inaugural MLS season.
“There’s things we need to work on,” said recently appointed captain Michael Parkhurst after the match, “that’s what these games are for. We need to look at the tape and realize what we did well and what we didn’t.” It was a tough match for the skipper and his team against his former club, but Atlanta United will look to bounce back when they take on Seattle Sounders FC on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. ET in their second match of the 2017 Carolina Challenge Cup.