For the first time in seven matches and almost two months, Atlanta United kept a clean sheet in their 2-0 win over Inter Miami on Sunday.
Though the Five Stripes largely dominated against a team down to 10 men for over an hour, it still took some moments of inspiration and unpredictability to force Inter Miami open. Luiz Araujo's beautiful long-range finish in the fourth minute and Marcelino Moreno's driving, head-down run in the build-up to Josef Martinez's clincher were two fine examples.
“I never felt all the way in control. I think sometimes maybe that’s our way to have or add a little bit of chaos. We open things up and we transition," said assistant coach Rob Valentino, who manned the dugout in the absence of the suspended Gonzalo Pineda.
But amid the 'chaos', it was Atlanta United's young rearguard that brought some calm and serenity.
Thanks to some chronic injury problems, the Five Stripes were forced to field a backline on Sunday whose oldest member was 25-year-old Alan Franco, alongside Brooks Lennon (24), George Campbell (20), Caleb Wiley (17), and goalkeeper Rocco Rios Novo (20).
Where more mature combinations have failed for Atlanta this season, this inexperienced defense came together to limit Inter Miami to three shots on target and an xG value of 0.91 - in comparison to eight and 2.13, respectively, for the hosts.
The defensive quartet combined to make 16 tackles, nine clearances, and seven interceptions, while they made 39 recoveries including Rios Novo - who made three saves in a shutout performance.
“There’s lots of young guys on this team and that doesn’t scare us," said Wiley after the match. "We have lots of veterans on this team that help us get through it, lots of experienced guys. But we’re all in this together and we all go with it and we’re doing well.”
Goalkeeper Rios Novo added: "As I have always said, it is a young team, but I think that from the youngest to the oldest, they all do their job how it needs to be done. If it continues like this, we are going to continue doing big things and I hope that results continue to be positive. We are going to continue working as a team.”
Of course, the young theme didn't stop in defense for Atlanta. In midfield, 21-year-old Franco Ibarra arguably had his best game for the club so far, passing the ball with purpose and routinely breaking up Inter Miami attacks. In fact, the oldest player in the starting XI on Sunday was Josef Martinez at 29 while, on the bench, 23-year-olds Aiden McFadden and Machop Chol were unused subs.
It speaks volumes that a 26-year-old like Luiz Araujo - a Ligue 1 title winner with Lille in 2021 - would see himself as a leader in the group.
“We have young guys on the team, but they are here to help us. I was a young player once too,
now I’m 26 years old. But all the young guys can help us," said the Brazilian, adding: "In France, we had a very young team but we were able to win the championship. Now the young guys can help us, and the experienced players like myself, Josef, and others are here to try and help them however we can.”
Should Atlanta United focus more on youth development?
Developing and selling young talent is becoming the norm in Major League Soccer. Household European names like Alphonso Davies, Tyler Adams, and Weston McKennie all started their careers at MLS clubs, while the likes of Ricardo Pepi, Daryl Dike, and Gianluca Busio are all trying to make names for themselves following similar moves.
It's a method Atlanta United have tapped into fewer than most, adopting more of a 'win now' attitude. But the club did sell George Bello to German side Arminia Bielefeld in January and, on the evidence of Sunday's win, it's a path they could easily walk further down.
With performances like this, it won't take long for the likes of Campbell and Wiley to start garnering similar European interest as Bello.
"I think sometimes we sit down, we think about what you were doing at that age. I think about it like that, they are miles ahead of where I was," said Valentino, who was capped once for the United States at Under-23 level during his playing career.
He continued: "Maturity wise, and in their own careers in general. They are in a pro-environment, and not only do they have to perform, but mature in their own ways and I think it’s good to see that we have a youth that is actually putting together performances and can play at this level. They get their opportunities that they take and do well with them. So, I’m pleased for all those guys and the whole team."