Game Report: Legion v. Atlanta United

A successful afternoon

Starting lineups:

Birmingham Legion: Matt vanOekel, Ryan James, Phanuel Kavita, Alex Crognale, Jonny Dean, Mikey Lopez, Anderson Asiedu, Bruno Lapa, Neco Brett, JJ Williams, Junior Flemmings.

Atlanta United¹: Rocco Rios Novo², George Bello, Miles Robinson, Ronald Hernandez, George Campbell, Ezequiel Barco, Machop Chol, Jürgen Damm, Tyler Wolff, Josef Hernandez, Amadou Diop².

¹ The Atlanta starting lineup was not announced at the game, so this list was assembled from my own observations. The Atlanta away kit is notoriously difficult to read, so errors may exist.
² Atlanta United 2 player.

Overall, this was not an especially exciting game to watch, especially not for the goodly number of Atlanta fans who made the trip over. This was the first opportunity in 2021 for both teams’ fans to see their guys in action live, and it should be the Legion fans who went home the happier.

The field conditions didn’t help. We had been promised storms for Sunday morning. Those thankfully passed us by, but the rainfall over the previous few days made for an entirely waterlogged pitch. The grounds crew valiantly attempted to brush as much water out as possible, but the players were splashing around and slipping constantly. The games had been publicized as 80 minutes each, but ended up at 70 minutes, probably due at least in part to the conditions.

So the format ended up identical to Atlanta’s friendly with the Charleston Battery last Saturday. Also identical was Atlanta’s decision to go with a somewhat mixed lineup. In addition to the two players from Atlanta United 2, Chol and Hernandez (on loan from United’s partner club Aberdeen) are unlikely to be regular starters. Several of those played the second game, notably goalkeeper Brad Guzan, along with Emerson Hyndman, Santiago Sosa and Brooks Lennon. Several other first team players also featured.

In contrast, the Legion went with what looked like the probable regular starting XI for 2021. Still, on paper this was not an even battle, and although the first game’s scoreline was 0-0, David would be declared the victor on points over Goliath. The Legion outshot the visitors 5-3 and generally looked more dangerous. Atlanta’s rebuilt and high-powered attack struggled to find opportunities. In contrast, they beat Charleston 6-0 over two games.

In particular the team’s high press was very effective and caused problems for Atlanta’s back line all game. Williams, Brett and Flemmings were unable to find the back of the net, but came close on several occasions and also showed some serious pace on the ball.

Pace of course is Jonny Dean’s specialty. That contributed in a big way to the press, but Dean also served well in defense, especially with a goal line block to maintain the clean sheet. I would put Dean as the early frontrunner for the Legion’s season MVP.

The second game saw entirely changed lineups, and on the Legion side of the ball that meant mostly unnamed trialists, along with Trevor Spangenberg (replaced in the second half by Ford Parker), Marcos Ugarte and Eli Crognale. The trialists not only didn’t get their names on their jerseys, two of them didn’t even get their own number, as there were two #15s on the field. Still, they largely held their own against a squad that could be described as a USL+ team. Of note, putting them up against Atlanta’s first choice goalkeeper was a tough task.

They ended up losing 1-0, but the goal was somewhat flukey, with Anton Walkes more or less deflecting a Mikey Ambrose shot into the corner of Spangenberg’s goal. Trevor was largely unsighted on the attempt, and didn’t have much of a chance to stop it. On the other hand, Ford Parker in the second half had the unusual experience of having a shot rebound off one post and back into his hands while on the ground and then to have the same happen off the other post a few minutes later.

Also interesting was Atlanta’s inclusion in that second game of Josh Bauer, who played with the Legion last year. He was eligible for this year’s MLS SuperDraft, and was taken by United in the second round despite having been originally predicted as a top 5 pick. He hasn’t been officially signed by Atlanta yet, but acquitted himself well. His number? 24, of course.

The only real negative for Birmingham on the afternoon was the injury to Prosper Kasim in the second game. He went down in the first half clutching his thigh in what looked suspiciously like a hamstring injury. There was no contact causing it though; he just pulled up in evident pain. The good news is that he has a month to recover before the season starts.

We also got our first look at goalkeeper Rocco Rios Novo. Rios Novo is just 18, and is on loan with Atlanta from Argentina’s Lanús. As such, he is likely to feature heavily with Atlanta United 2, so we will probably see him several times over the season. He’s young, but showed no real nerves yesterday and will cause USL opponents a deal of frustration.

In the end, the Legion held their own, and fans have every reason to be optimistic about the upcoming season.

33 days and counting…

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