The 2020 season starts on Tuesday for Atlanta with the first leg of the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 contest with Honduras’ Motagua. El Ciclón is currently leading the Liga Salva Vida with nineteen points through eight matches, having won their last four matches. This includes a 1-0 Saturday win over fifth placed Real España that saw manager Diego Vásquez field a first choice lineup, but also saw two starters leave on a stretcher in the second half.
Atlanta United’s Miles Robinson has been ruled out of the match due to a leg injury suffered in Guadalajara last week. Motagua also has a question at center back with Juan Pablo Montes forced out of Saturday’s match early in the second half with an apparent hamstring injury. The 34-year old is Motagua’s captain, a dangerous target on set pieces, and a mainstay in a backline that has conceded only six goals in this season’s eight matches so far.
Motagua’s other injury scare is their recently returned all-time leading scorer Rubilio Castillo. On loan from Portugal’s CD Tondela, he scored the winning goal from the penalty spot in the first half on Saturday. However, after taking a kick to the back of his left leg midway through the second half, Castillo had to be substituted. He was replaced by another early season acquisition who has been productive, 36-year old Argentine forward Gonzalo Klusener. The veteran has scored twice in five starts since joining the team in mid-January.
With both teams facing absences on Tuesday night in San Pedro Sula, what strengths will Motagua rely upon to notch a historic win?
El Ciclón has a strong combination on the right side of their team. Right back Félix Crisanto and right winger Kevin López get forward very well and the majority of Motagua’s attacking chances originate from this side. López likes to stay wide and deliver quality service to the forwards, but will come inside when Crisanto bombs forward and overlaps. Crisanto is the more experienced one at 29 years old, and with a year spent in Liga MX at Lobos BUAP. López is younger at 24 but debuted with Motagua at 17 years old. Their chemistry and attacking talents brings out the best of Motagua.
Veteran left back Emilio Izaguirre spoke to Honduran newspaper Diario Deportivo Diez this morning and cited his team’s strength in set pieces as giving them an advantage on Tuesday night. Montes’ potential absence will hurt, but there are other options as targets on both corner kicks and free kicks. Typically, the service comes from El Motorcito Matías Galvaliz, a 30-year old in his second year with the club. Both Klusener and Castillo are accomplished in the air, but look to central midfielder Reinieri Mayorquín to step up in these situations as another aerial option.
The 32-year old Paraguayan is having an incredible run of form, leading the team with fourteen goals in his last twenty-four matches since the start of the last Apertura. He often drops off from the forward line to give the team an appearance of a 4-4-1-1 shape and will drift outside when needed. He excels in finding space and timing his runs to finish sequences.
Atlanta was in this situation last year at this time, traveling to Costa Rica to face the defending league champions Herediano. A 3-1 loss was overcome with a 4-0 win at home in the second leg. The early goal conceded in Costa Rica provides a key lesson for Tuesday night. Herediano built in confidence from that point, to the point that Atlanta pulling one goal back did not faze them. A strong start is essential for Atlanta to both build their own confidence, but to also frustrate Motagua.
Another key for Atlanta is to push the pace of the match when they are able. Motagua is a team that likes to slow the game down and be more methodical in working the ball to their right side for López to pick out a cross. With this being the first competitive match for Atlanta, playing a full tilt without mistakes will be difficult. However, picking moments to create overload situations and forcing Motagua to play faster than they are comfortable will go a long way to reaching a positive result.
We will be on the air at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday night with the 5 Stripes Countdown. Kickoff will be just after 10:00 p.m. and we will have the Full Time Report following the final whistle.