And so it begins
It’s been over one hundred days (111 to be exact) since Atlanta United last took the pitch, and after a soccer-deprived winter, the Five Stripes are finally back in action. Atlanta could barely look more different than from the team that beat Club America 1-0 thanks to a Jackson Conway strike back in December. From a new coach to a partial roster overhaul, the Five Stripes are in pristine condition. Alajuelense, however, will look to make Atlanta’s long-awaited return one to forget.
The Costa Rican side has a firm grip on first place in the Primera Division with 34 points from 16 games, six ahead of the nearest competition. Los Leones are yet to lose this season and boast both the best attack (31 scored) and defense (9 conceded) of the league. Jurguens Montenegro, who was falsely linked with Atlanta in December has 8 goals to his name, while Marcel Hernandez (11 goals), Bryan Ruiz (5 goals), Alonso Martinez (6 goals), and 39-year-old Alvaro Saborio (6 goals) could cause Atlanta’s backline problems. Along with its fiery attack, Alajuelense has conceded one goal or less in its last eleven matches. Keeping the Costa Ricans off the scoresheet could be the key to advancement as Atlanta will be hard-pressed to rack up goals, especially if Josef Martinez is not quite match-ready.
Atlanta is only in this year’s edition of the CCL thanks to a 2019 US Open Cup win, but the roster changes since then have been too many to count. Only seven players remain from the matchday 18 that beat Minnesota United 2-1, in large part thanks to a more-active than usual 2020 offseason. The Five Stripes made ten additions since December, while nine players have exited the doors of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Stalwarts like Franco Escobar and Eric Remedi have moved on, while signings such as Santiago Sosa and Ronald Hernandez inspire hope for 2021. The biggest change of all, however, is Gabriel Heinze’s appointment as head coach. The Argentine promises Atlanta a vastly different look than under Stephen Glass and while it may take time for the benefits to come into fruition, merely having a path to success to follow from day 1 is a welcome sight.
Predicted Starting XI
Marcelino Moreno is suspended after picking up a red card against Club America, but other than the 25-year-old, Heinze should have a full squad at his disposal. With Alan Franco’s move to Atlanta still not official, Anton Walkes could get the start in the center of defense. Sosa may get his Five Stripes debut in midfield while Ezequiel Barco will replace Moreno. Though he is back in training, Josef Martinez could be relegated to the bench as he slowly returns to full fitness after over a year out but Lisandro Lopez is a capable replacement.
Prediction: Alajuelense 1-1 Atlanta United
A draw is likely going to be the best result Atlanta could hope for. Alajuelense is in mid-season form and has put in strong performances consistently in league action. Atlanta, on the other hand, is just now coming back from a four-month hiatus and still adapting to Heinze’s system and the handful of new arrivals. The Five Stripes are sure to be rusty, but its quality advantage over Alajuelense should be enough for a point, however ugly.