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Preview: The Young Bucks of ATL2

The Riverhounds return to Highmark Stadium after a frustrating weeklong road trip that produced two losses – last Saturday’s clunky defeat against Las Vegas Lights, and Tuesday’s strong performance against FC Cincinnati, in which the Hounds dominated the first half, then struggled in the second but held things at 0-0, only to ultimately disintegrate in extra time and lose 2-0.

They face one of the remaining ‘two’ teams in USL – MLS teams that did not choose to split and join MLS Next Pro. The other holdovers in the Championship are Los Angeles Galaxy II, Red Bull II, and Rio Grand Valley Toros. Why are they still here? I’m not entirely sure.

There are some clear advantages to MLS NP, which is very simply a reserve league. The big club goes to Minnesota? You bring the twos. Everyone that doesn’t get off the bench or make the 18 man roster has to wake up on Sunday morning and head back to the stadium for a match in front of a paltry crowd. Guys get exercise; the club’s travel secretary has make  half as many phone calls for flights, hotels, and buses; win-win I guess. It’s also cheaper: MLS NP teams play 24 games, while USL-C teams will play 34.

Staying in USL Championship probably means better competition, and more matches, so in terms of development, it’s probably better. Maybe that’s it – the four teams that stayed simply want to push their youth.

Whatever the reason, we all know the downside of USL-C’s MLS2 teams – terrible attendance, and ATL2 are no exception. In three home matches with recorded attendance, they drew 535 fans, 624 fans, and 574 fans, respectively. God bless those fans – they’re the kind of stalwart lot that rode for the Riverhounds back in the ‘we play at a high school in the south hills’ days. But the USL has got to move on from this. It’s 2022. We should be done with soccer on baseball fields, soccer on throwball fields, and reserve league soccer.

Tactics and Personnel

Atlanta United 2 play an honest to goodness 4-4-2. You don’t see that an awful lot anymore. It’s a pretty fluid, modern version of the 4-4-2 to be sure. Based on what I saw in their match against Indy Eleven last week, a 2-1 defeat, the weak side [i.e. non-ball side] fullback in defense will often play higher in order to be of use in a counter attack. The strikers, meanwhile, will alternately switch with outside midfielders or combine with them down the wings, or drop into midfield and let their central midfield compatriots attack into the final third in their stead.

Indy pressed them hard for the first twenty minutes of the match, and ATL were totally discombobulated. In fact, they looked utterly shapeless and incapable of holding onto the ball in that first half, managing just four shots. By the end of the match, they’d finish with just seven. But Indy couldn’t keep up a press like that all game, and ATL had more spells of possession for the second half – during which they struggled to make clean and dangerous passes. The one exception was a beautiful slipped through-ball that Atlanta converted for a goal.

Goal scoring has been a huge problem for Atlanta. They’ve played seven matches and turned in a 2-0-7 (WTL) record, with 7 Goals For and 13 Goals Against. What’s worse – they scored 4 of those goals in same match. So it’s not quite coming together for ATL yet.

The two veterans that help guide the many youngsters on this squad are Mikey Ambrose, a veteran fullback of eight seasons between USL and MLS, and Pittsburgh’s own Robbie Mertz, who serves as captain for Five Stripes Junior. Mertz is one of two central midfielders for Jack Collison, the 33 year-old manager of the squad. Alongside him is the very talented Nicolas Firmino, a 21 year-old Brazilian who came as a homegrown in the New England Revolution system, getting signed by the Revs in 2018, but never appearing  for the senior club. He played for Revs II and Union Omaha before coming to Atlanta.

The big scoring threat is 20 year-old Jackson Conway, at Atlanta United academy kid since 2016 who has been appearing for ATL 2 and the big Atlanta United team since he was 16. He has 268 minutes for Atlanta United, and a goal, plus another 3,498 minutes for ATL2 and 16 goals. So although he’s been starved so far this year, the Hounds will have to watch him.

Last Week’s Starting XI for ATL2

Garces; Ambrose, Orji, Washington, McFadden; Centeno, Mertz, Firmino, Lambe; Conway, Mejia

Match Info

Riverhounds (4-1-1) vs. Atlanta United 2 (2-5-0) [WLT]
Date: Saturday, April 23
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium
Odds: Hounds -250 / Draw +350 / Atlanta +550 (FanDuel)
Tickets: Ticketmaster
TV: 22 The Point
Streaming: ESPN+
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtag: #PITvATL

Featured Image c/o ATL UTD 2 via twitter

Mark Asher Goodman is a writer for Pittsburgh Soccer Now, covering the Riverhounds, the Pitt Men's and Women's teams, and youth soccer. He also co-hosts a podcast on the Colorado Rapids called 'Holding the High Line with Rabbi and Red.' He has written in the past for the Washington Post, Denver Post, The Athletic, and American Soccer Analysis. When he's not reading, writing, watching, or coaching soccer, he is an actual rabbi. No, really. You can find him on twitter at @soccer_rabbi

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