Soccer Down Here
Atlanta United 2 Showing Fight After Gutcheck
If you have never had the good fortune to venture into the guts of 5/3 Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, then it is hard to explain the interview room where Atlanta United 2 interviews are held. The room is under the scoreboard in the north end of the stadium, and it is an empty room where photographers and team employees can set up shop to edit footage and store waters and other equipment. There is nothing special about this room. It carries no energy or atmosphere other than the gentle hum of HVAC equipment behind the walls.
Often the atmosphere, energy or whatever you want to call it is changed by the attitude of the players and coaches that come in after 90 minutes of soccer. I say all of that to explain that when Atlanta United 2 Head Coach Jack Collison came into the room four games ago, after a disappointing 3-0 loss to Hartford Athletic, the tension and anger was real.
“I said to them, ‘it’s the worst I’ve felt coming off the back of a game, even when we’ve took (sic) some real beatings’”, said Collison.
“No personality, no bravery. The worrying thing is, there was a real lack of effort.”
Atlanta United 2 has been knocked around more than a few times in its history. They often took their lumps while playing with high possession numbers, trying to break down veteran sides with young players who occasionally got slapped across the face on the counter. You can live with that. It is part of the growing experience and they learn how to handle different game states. A lack of effort, though, has never been ok. The 2s went through a stretch like this late last season as well, and finished the year strong when challenged by their manager and they appear to be doing the same in the dog days of summer.
After laying that 90 minute egg against Hartford, the 2s were handed a brutal stretch of schedule by the league: a trip to Oakland, California on short rest, then another game on short rest in Charleston, South Carolina. After that they were asked to come home for two games on short rest again against El Paso Locamotive and Birmingham Legion, a game that always has the potential to turn into a rock fight.
But then something happened during a hard-fought loss in Oakland. The 2s found their bravery and fight again. They were tied after 70 minutes and undone by one of the most dubious penalty decisions you will see this year. They chased that with a wild and drunken 4-3 win over Charleston and then a gritty 2-2 draw against El Paso that felt more like a loss than a draw. They earned just under a point for every thousand miles they have traveled in the last week.
Along with rediscovering their fight, the brutal road trip also appears to have unlocked the attack for Atlanta. Specifically, Tristan Trager has gone full Nuke Laloosh and announced his presence with authority, collecting five goals in the last three games and USL Player of the Week honors. And in the category of ‘rising tide lifting all boats, his partnership up top appears to have also freed up Jackson Conway, who had two goals in Charleston, and Darwin Matheus, who looks more like the 2021 version that tortured many USL teams.
“It’s been nice, I think, for Jacko (Jackson Conway) to have a little bit of help up there,” said Collison.
“There have been times during the season where he was probably a bit isolated and feeding off scraps. For us as a coaching staff, we try to set these boys up to give them the best chances to succeed.”
A backline that has produced only two clean sheets this season has also seen growth and optimism from young players like Grant Howard when challenged has helped turn the emotional tide.
“I think Grants is probably the biggest success story of the entire season,” said Collison.
“The progress we’ve seen in him from game 1 to 17 or 18 has been phenomenal. Probably the most pleasing thing for me has probably been his bravery.”
The El Paso game was Howard’s farewell game for Atlanta United 2 before he heads to college at Virginia Tech and how they address the backline remains to be seen. They have used a three man backline in the last month or so, with Nelson Orji and Noah Cobb helping anchor the defense. Cobb continues to impress, defending like a league veteran while Orji almost seems to draw strength from the scrappiest of games.
None of this is to say or predict that Atlanta United 2 will go on some miracle run and make the playoffs in their final season of the USL Championship, but the bravery that Jack Collison always speaks of appears to be back in spades.
“We talk about bravery all the time,” said Collison.
For me, of course they had to be brave in terms of pressing and winning tackles and dealing with the physicality.”
After the El Paso match, that same empty room sat lifeless. Waiting for whatever energy the players and manager would bring. Instead of a storm cloud, Collison walked in with a smirk and a plate of food, with plans to scarf down dinner huddled over a UFC fight. But disappointment was a different kind from a fortnight ago. It was a good kind. A kind you can build on.
“They’re disappointed in not getting over the line and for me, that’s progress,” said Collison.
“It’s just great to see them playing with real personality. Although the heavy fixture schedule gives us physical problems, sometimes it’s great to just find a little bit of momentum and roll into games like that.”