Atlanta United plays Cincinnati to costly draw, finishes 6th in East

Atlanta United will face Columbus in playoffs
Atlanta United forward Giorgos Giakoumakis #7 controls the ball during the first half of the match against Cincinnati FC at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati, OH on Saturday October 21, 2023. (Photo by Mitch Martin/Atlanta United)

Credit: Mitch Martin/Atlanta United

Credit: Mitch Martin/Atlanta United

Atlanta United forward Giorgos Giakoumakis #7 controls the ball during the first half of the match against Cincinnati FC at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati, OH on Saturday October 21, 2023. (Photo by Mitch Martin/Atlanta United)

CINCINNATI -- Atlanta United wanted to use Saturday’s regular-season finale at Cincinnati to show that it would be a tough opponent in the first round of the MLS playoffs.

The match didn’t work out entirely like it hoped.

The team played the Supporters’ Shield winners to a 2-2 draw at TQL Stadium. But the Five Stripes gave up two goals after twice taking leads, and they lost Thiago Almada for their first match in the playoffs because he received two yellow cards, resulting in a red card and one-game suspension, after he committed two fouls, the last of which manager Gonzalo Pineda described as a “stupid” play. Atlanta United played the final 38 minutes with just 10 men and kept Cincinnati from scoring the winning goal, if one wants a positive.

“It’s never the goal of these matches to tie, especially away,” Pineda said. “But the performance before the red card was very good to me. I wasn’t happy, of course, with the two silly goals that we conceded.”

Giorgos Giakoumakis scored twice for Atlanta United to finish the regular season with 17 goals. Almada assisted on both to finish with a league-best 19 assists.

Atlanta United (13-9-12) finished in sixth in the East. It will play Columbus in the first round, which is a best-of-three format. The Crew will host the first and, if necessary, third games. The league is supposed to announce the postseason schedule Sunday afternoon.

Both teams selected strong starting lineups though neither had much to play for.

Atlanta United’s included Giakoumakis, Almada, Xande Silva, Saba Lobjanidze, Tristan Muyumba, Matheus Rossetto, Caleb Wiley, Ronald Hernandez, in for Brooks Lennon, Miles Robinson, Luis Abram and Brad Guzan.

Cincinnati’s included Luciano Acosta, the favorite to be named MLS MVP, and Brandon Vazquez.

Atlanta United took a 1-0 lead in the 12th minute when Giakoumakis one-timed a pass from Lobjanidze. It was Giakoumakis’ 16th goal and Lobjanidze’s fourth assist. Lobjanidze was played into space down the right by Almada, who was credited with his league-leading 18th assist. It was a deserved goal for the Five Stripes, who created several scoring opportunities in the opening minutes.

Cincinnati tied the game in the 25th minute on a goal by Dominique Badji, who made a run from the back post to the center of the goal, where he one-touched a pass from Alvas Powell. It came on Cincinnati’s first shot on goal.

Giakoumakis scored his second to give the Five Stripes a 2-1 lead in the 32nd minute. Giakoumakis stuck out his left leg and put the ball, which was bouncing through the box, into the top of the goal for his 17th this season. Almada was credited with his 19th assist.

“We were destroying them,” Giakoumakis said. “There was only one team on the field. And then we received the red card and the balance changed completely, we have to defend.”

Giakoumakis said his teammates were encouraging each other to feed him in his pursuit to win the Golden Boot, given to the league’s top scorer.

It’s an award that Giakoumakis said earlier this season that he wanted, but had dismissed a few days ago.

Hearing them saying they wanted him to score more made him emotional.

“I (expletive) love this team,” he said.

Acosta tied the game at 2 on a header at the back post from a cross by Alvaro Barreal, who got away from Lobjanidze, in first-half stoppage time. It was Acosta’s 17th goal. He beat Wiley to the back post to score. Both Cincinnati goals were scored by runners who weren’t tracked well by Atlanta United defenders.

“It was poor defending,” Pineda said. “We need to do better. We always say that space doesn’t score the goals, it’s the man that scored the goals. We have to feel a little bit more the way ... to match the runners inside the box and not be scored on in that sense. But also preventing more those type of crosses.”

The goals came on Cincinnati’s only two shots on goal in the half.

“We defend better the box when we are men down then when we’re 11-11,” Pineda said. “But it’s part of the learning process. Encouraging, I think, if we put those two things together: the good football of the first half, and then the good defending inside the box, I think we’ll have a good combination for the playoffs.”

Almada was given a second yellow card, and subsequent red card, in the 52nd minute. Almada will be forced to miss Atlanta United’s first playoff match. Almada received the first yellow card in the 36th minute.

“We talked internally, we’ll keep that inside the doors,” Pineda said about discussions with Almada.

Edwin Mosquera came on for Lobjanidze in the 63rd minute. Jay Fortune and Jamal Thiare came on for Silva and Giakoumakis in the 75th minute.

Giakoumakis was very unhappy with referee Joe Dickerson. Before he was subbed, Giakoumakis said a Cincinnati player almost broke his ankle. The player received a yellow card. Giakoumakis felt the player should have received a red card.

“So, I don’t know what is a red card in this league,” Giakoumakis said. “Probably, if you break your ankle, then it’s going to count. It depends on the team always. It depends on the team always in this league. So I think right now we have to earn the respect even more.”

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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 Atlanta United 5, Inter Miami 2

Sept. 20 Atlanta United 1, D.C. United 1

Sept. 23 Atlanta United 4, Montreal 1

Oct. 4 Philadelphia 3, Atlanta United 2

Oct. 7 Atlanta United 1, Columbus 1

Oct. 21 Atlanta United 2, FC Cincinnati 2