A sellout crowd of 25,527 at Exploria Stadium braved a stormy night and suffered through a half-hour delay to see Atletico Madrid best the MLS All-Stars 3-0 in the 2019 MLS All-Star Game. The Spanish giants looked the better side all night but the score remained tight until late in the match, which was the only contest all week to feature an Orlando City representative (Nani) and not win.
Marcos Llorente, Joao Felix, and Diego Costa scored the goals for Atleti, who looked every bit the part of La Liga title contenders in the victory.
“It’s more an occasion for the whole league,” said MLS All-Star and Orlando City Head Coach James O’Connor after the match. “I think it gives a great representation of the league. It’s a chance for some of the young players to test themselves against some of the best players in the world. And I think equally we have some of the best players in the world.”
O’Connor’s troops lined up in a 4-1-4-1, including Nani, as follows:
Nani will start tonight on the left in a 4-1-4-1 formation. Guzan; Lawrence, Hedges, Zimmerman, Zusi; Chara; Nani, Pozuelo, Rooney, Vela; Zlatan. #MLSAllStar— The Mane Land (@TheManeLand) July 31, 2019
The game took a while to get going, with both teams playing in about 30 yards of the pitch from midfield to about halfway between the midfield line and the top of the All-Stars’ defensive penalty area.
The first look came eight minutes in when Angel Correa shot wide for Atleti on a good opportunity in the box. Four minutes later, Correa got the game’s first shot on target, putting a weak effort in on Brad Guzan.
Atletico Madrid continued to get the better chances with a 15th-minute sequence that saw a shot by Correa that was blocked by Walker Zimmerman and a good diving stop by Guzan on the rebound opportunity.
The MLS All-Stars began to get a better hold on the game after a shot by Rodrigo Riquelme went well over the bar in the 17th minute. Zlatan Ibrahimovic found Carlos Vela in the area and the LAFC star danced around defenders on the left but couldn’t find a path through to either shoot or pass in minute 24.
The best chance of the half for the All-Stars came in the 26th minute. Nani laid off for Alejandro Pozuelo, and the Toronto star laid off for Wayne Rooney, who sent a screamer that was just over the bar. The MLS side felt the ball was tipped but referee Drew Fisher gave a goal kick.
At the half-hour mark, Zlatan and Guzan checked out and were replaced by Josef Martinez and Andre Blake, respectively. Without the big Swede up top, Atletico Madrid started to turn possession back around in its favor.
Llorente sent a ball over the bar in the 36th minute and Hector Herrera headed too high a minute later as Atleti probed for the opener. The goal finally came in minute 43. Riquelme unlocked the defense with a gorgeous one-touch through ball for a perfect run from Llorente, who beat Blake to make it 1-0.
That was it for the opening half and the visitors took their 1-0 advantage into the locker room. Atleti dominated the stats, out-shooting the All-Stars 12-1 (3-0 on target), although the All-Stars held 52% of the possession and held a slight edge in passing accuracy (86%-85%).
Nani had the second-most touches of any non-defender for the All-Stars in the half (34), but only passed at a 65% clip. He did have a few brilliant individual moments but couldn’t turn them into anything. This might have been the best one.
O’Connor made wholesale changes at halftime and that nearly paid off with an equalizer early in the second half. Just two minutes after the break, Diego Rossi whistled a shot just wide of the near post from in close. Nicolas Lodeiro fizzed a cross through the box a minute later, but no All-Star could get onto it. Pity Martinez whiffed on a volley attempt moments after that, as the All-Stars pushed to level the game.
The best opportunity of the match for the MLS side came in the 55th minute when a fantastic ball from Mark-Anthony Kaye released Lodeiro in alone on Antonio Adán, but the Atletico keeper made the save.
After those early warning signs, Diego Simeone made several changes, putting his typical starters on the pitch, including Costa, Felix, and goalkeeper Jan Oblak, and it served to turn the tide back in the Spanish side’s favor.
“I actually thought the second half the fellas did a really good job of pressing, counter-pressing, staying in their half,” O’Connor said.
It took only two minutes before Felix made his presence felt, forcing a good diving save by Andre Blake.
In the 78th minute Pity Martinez blew the first of a couple of good opportunities on the night. Jonathan dos Santos stepped into a passing lane, bombed forward, and found Martinez who missed the target.
A minute later his Atlanta teammate Ezequiel Barco saw his free kick from just outside the area saved by Oblak, who pushed the ball past a lurking Lodeiro. Bastian Schweinsteiger followed a minute later with a free kick from a bit further out that skipped wide of the far post.
Atletico Madrid put the game away in the 85th minute on a stunner by Felix, who took a pass from Saúl and blasted a rocket off the hand of Nick Rimando and in to make it 2-0.
The visitors tacked on a goal late in stoppage time, with Costa blazing down the field ahead of everyone, latching onto a beautiful pass from Felix, and beating Rimando to make it 3-0.
Atletico finished with a 19-10 advantage in shots (8-2 on target), while the MLS All-Stars led in possession (59%) and passing accuracy (87%-82%).
“There were some exemplary pieces and passages of play from both teams,” O’Connor said. “I thought it was a very entertaining game. For all of the players I think it’s just pleased that everyone’s managed to get through with no injuries.”
“It was tough because Atletico put on some young players who like to run everywhere,” Nani joked after the game. “They wanted to show everything to their coach. But at the end you can enjoy the game and see some good football from both teams from MLS — because we had one team in the first half and another in the second half.”
One player who got a rude welcome from Orlando fans was Guzan, who took it in stride as part of the growing rivalry between the Lions and Atlanta United, but overall he had a good stay in the City Beautiful.
“It’s been good to be here with this locker room and this group of guys,” he said. “It’s been great to get to know these guys off the field, to see what they’re like. Ultimately to finish with a game against a quality opponent like Atletico Madrid, it’s been good. The boos and the jeers are to be expected, a bit tongue-in-cheek. It’s all part of it and all in good fun.”