An announced attendance of 71,635 came to see Messi, arguably the greatest player of all time, only for him to last be seen eating a bizarre pizza Friday and attending one of his son’s soccer matches Saturday morning in south Florida. He didn’t play because of muscle fatigue. The team didn’t want to risk a more serious injury.
Instead, those who came on a rainy Saturday watched a match that was full of rough energy, skillful goals, and Thiago Almada, who set a single-season franchise record for assists with his 15th. Saba Lobjanidze picked up his first two assists, becoming the first player in club history to pick up two assists as a substitute. They also saw the return of Gerado Martino, who led Atlanta United to the 2018 MLS Cup, and Josef Martinez, who was named MLS MVP that season. Both were wearing the pink of the Herons. Martino said it felt good to be back.
Atlanta United manager Gonzalo Pineda said he found out on Twitter that Messi wasn’t playing. He had said during the week that the team prepared as if Messi wouldn’t play. He said they made a couple of adjustments. They worked.
“A lot of things that are going on out there and the atmosphere and everything seems to be about Inter Miami, about Messi, about all that,” Pineda said. “And I told them, we have to turn that down to it’s about us. It’s about Atlanta United.”
After rallying from a goal down, Pineda and captain Brad Guzan said they were proud of the team.
“The result was good, but how we got to the result was even more important than the actual result,” Guzan said.
Pineda selected a strong starting 11, starting with Giakoumakis at striker and Almada at attacking midfielder. Xande Silva and Edwin Mosquera were on the wings, and Muyumba and Matheus Rossetto in central midfield. Miles Robinson and Luis Abram were paired as the centerbacks, Brooks Lennon and Caleb Wiley as the fullbacks, and Guzan in goal.
Miami’s starting lineup didn’t include Martinez, who was playing his first game in the stadium since his contract was bought out by Atlanta United in the preseason. He was honored for his six seasons with the club, that included winning the MLS Cup in 2018, during a small pregame ceremony on the halo board.
Miami took a 1-0 lead in the 25th minute with a bit of Messi-inspired skill from Leo Campana. He trapped with his chest a shot from Dixon Arroyo that bounced off Guzan’s crossbar to him. Chesting the ball turned Campana to his left. Before the ball hit the ground, he juggled it with his left foot back to his right and, before the ball hit the ground, slammed a volley with the outside of his left foot into the roof of the net. He did this with Robinson on top of him. No Atlanta United player moved to close down Arroyo before his shot, taken 20 yards from goal in the right channel.
It was a goal like many others scored against Atlanta United this season. The defense didn’t react quickly enough to attempt to block Arroyo’s shot, followed by a bit of special skill from Campana.
But Atlanta United didn’t break, scoring three goals in eight minutes.
Muyumba was credited with a goal in the 36th minute after a video review. Muyumba’s close-range header bounced off the back post and back toward the goal. It didn’t appear that the ball totally crossed the line, but the signal was given for goal. Lennon was credited with his 10th assist and Mosquera his first.
Atlanta United took a 2-1 lead in the 41st minute on an own goal, forced by Silva who got to the end line and fired in a cross that deflected off Kemal Miller.
Lennon made the score 3-1 in the in the 43rd minute on a shot 12 yards. It was assisted by Wiley, who used several stepovers to give himself enough space to put in a cross. It was Lennon’s fourth goal, setting a career high, and Wiley’s third assist.
Abram was called for a handball in the 18-yard box in the 52nd minute. He also was given a yellow card. Campana scored the ensuing penalty kick to cut Atlanta United’s lead to 3-2 in the 53rd minute. Players on both teams came together in the goal after Campana’s, reflecting the pressure of the situation. A smaller group of layers came together again in the 56th minute, this time near midfield after Lennon was fouled. And the players came together again in the 57th minute after Almada was hacked down by Facundo Farias. Farias received a yellow card.
Minutes after tempers cooled, Lobjanidze came on for Mosquera in the 74th minute.
With his first touch in the game, Lobjanidze fed Giakoumakis for a goal to give Atlanta United a 4-1 lead in the 76th minute. The play started with Silva feeding Almada into space. He played Lobjanidze down the right. He squared the ball to Giakoumakis for his 14th goal as he continues his pursuit of the Golden Boot, given to the player who has scored the most at season’s end. It was Lobjanidze’s first assist and Almada’s 15th assist.
Martinez came on in the 83rd minute to cheers.
Lobjanidze picked up his second assist on Wolff’s goal in the 90th minute. It was Wolff’s fifth goal, and Atlanta United tied its season-high for goals. Because MLS honors the secondary assist, Atlanta United players were credited with seven assists, a franchise high.
With the win, Atlanta United improved to 12-8-9 with five matches remaining. It will play at D.C. United on Wednesday. The team’s goal is to finish in at least fourth. It is one point from fourth, but Philadelphia, the team it is chasing, has played two fewer matches. The Five Stripes, have three wins their past five, are three points from second-place New England.
“The job is not done at all, like we’re still not in the top four still, we’re not for sure in playoffs,” Pineda said “I mean there are still many things to do. Some teams have couple of games ahead of us, so we still need to catch up. Tonight, we’re going to enjoy, for sure, because it’s been a fantastic night for us, for the fans, for our families, for the staff.”
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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule
Feb. 25 Atlanta United 2, San Jose Earthquakes 1
March 4 Atlanta United 1, Toronto FC 1
March 11 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte FC 0
March 18 Atlanta United 5, Portland 1
March 25 Columbus 6, Atlanta United 1
April 1 Atlanta United 1, New York Red Bulls 0
April 8 Atlanta United 1, New York City FC 1
April 15 Atlanta United 2, Toronto FC 2
April 23 Atlanta United 2, Chicago 1
April 29 Nashville SC 3, Atlanta United 1
May 6 Inter Miami CF 2, Atlanta United 1
May 13 Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 1
May 17 Atlanta United 4, Colorado 0
May 20 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 3
May 27 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1
May 31 Atlanta United 3, New England 3
June 7 Atlanta United 0, LAFC 0
June 10 Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 1
June 21 Atlanta United 2, New York City 2
June 24 New York Red Bulls 4, Atlanta United 0
July 2 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 0
July 8 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0
July 12 New England 2, Atlanta United 1
July 15 Orlando City 2, Atlanta United 1
July 25 Miami 4, Atlanta United 0 in Leagues Cup
July 29 Cruz Azul 1 (5), Atlanta United (4) 1 in Leagues Cup
Aug. 20 Atlanta United 2, Seattle 0
Aug. 26 Atlanta United 4, Nashville 0
Aug. 30 Cincinnati 2, Atlanta United 1
Sept. 2 Atlanta United 2, FC Dallas 2
Sept. 16 vs. Inter Miami CF, 5 p.m.
Sept. 20 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 23 vs. CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 4 at Philadelphia Union, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 7 vs. Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 21 at FC Cincinnati, TBA