Atlanta United stays unbeaten in MLS preseason friendlies

Five Stripes defeat Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg on Saturday
Atlanta United forward Saba Lobjanidze #9 kicks the ball during the match against Tampa Bay Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Saturday Feb. 10, 2024. (Photo by Mitch Martin/Atlanta United)

Credit: Mitch Martin/Atlanta United

Credit: Mitch Martin/Atlanta United

Atlanta United forward Saba Lobjanidze #9 kicks the ball during the match against Tampa Bay Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Saturday Feb. 10, 2024. (Photo by Mitch Martin/Atlanta United)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Atlanta United remained undefeated in its preseason friendlies with a 2-0 win against Tampa Bay on Saturday at Al Lang Stadium.

Nic Firmino and Jamal Thiare scored for the Five Stripes, who are 3-0-1 with one friendly left, against Sporting KC on Feb. 17 in Miami. Atlanta United will open its MLS season at Columbus on Feb. 24.

Like Wednesday’s friendly against Montreal, which Atlanta United won 2-1, Saturday’s match featured hard tackles and several nice attacking sequences by both teams. Atlanta United created more quality opportunities than the Rowdies, with good saves preventing it from winning by more. The bulk of the players who start on the back line have given up one goal during the preseason.

“We need to be more clinical, we need to score those goals,” manager Gonzalo Pineda said. “I think today we created eight clear chances. Probably we should surely score at least half of those, right?”

Atlanta United fielded a strong starting 11 that consisted of striker Thiare, in for the injured Giorgos Giakoumakis, attacking midfielder Firmino, wingers Saba Lobjanidze and Xande Silva, central midfielders Tristan Muyumba and Bartosz Slisz, fullbacks Brooks Lennon and Caleb Wiley, centerbacks Stian Gregersen and Derrick Williams and goalkeeper Josh Cohen. In addition to Giakoumakis, other players not available for selection included Edwin Mosquera (groin) and Thiago Almada (international duty). Pineda said after the game, “we’ll see,” when asked who will be the team’s starting goalkeeper. Cohen and Brad Guzan, the starter for the majority of games since 2017, are competing.

The format for Saturday was two 45-minute halves. Pineda said this week he expected most of the starters to go around 75 minutes. Gregersen, who returned to training this week, and Wiley, who recently returned from a shoulder injury, were subbed out earlier.

Pineda said Friday he hoped to see a continuation of progress on the things the team has been working on: pressing, its middle-block and low-block defense and playing from the back.

Silva, Thiare and Firmino were guilty of not capitalizing on good scoring opportunities in the first 30 minutes against Tampa Bay’s four-man back line.

Gregersen was replaced by Noah Cobb in the 32nd minute.

Tampa Bay also wasted several decent opportunities. The Rowdies produced more good chances than Montreal did Wednesday.

“Set pieces were very good,” Pineda said. “They were very tall, very aggressive in set pieces.”

Ronald Hernandez replaced Wiley to start the second half.

Thiare, who was knocked around a few times in the first half by Tampa Bay’s bigger centerbacks, almost got his revenge, but was denied in a one-on-one by Tampa Bay goalkeeper Phil Breno in the 48th minute.

Firmino was the next to get in on goal after a one-two with a teammate, only to be stopped by Breno in the 52nd minute.

A minute later, Firmino created a turnover near the top of the box, spun to his left and hit a shot into the corner to give Atlanta United a 1-0 lead. It was Firmino’s second goal this preseason.

Thiare got his goal in the 64th minute with an assist from Lobjanidze. The play started deep in Atlanta United’s end after it created a turnover. Hernandez played Silva, who won the turnover, into space down the left. He played it across with the ball, eventually finding Lobjanidze, who fooled his defender by turning toward midfield, before reversing and sprinting toward Tampa Bay’s goal. He clipped the ball across to Thiare for the header. It was Thiare’s second goal this preseason. Had Thiare not gotten his head on it, Lobjanidze’s cross seemed like it would have gone in anyway.

“We have talented players, especially on the flank ... so the idea is trying to put them with a lot of time and space in those areas, and they will produce,” Pineda said.

Pineda said that the fact that Firmino and Thiare, who will be reserves once the season starts, are scoring is a good sign, especially considering that Atlanta United will rely on them during FIFA international breaks when Giakoumakis and Almada likely will be with their national teams.

“I feel like that’s what I like, is both groups are showing very similar behaviors,” Pineda said. “We have players with a different type of quality. Nick is constantly impacting the goal. So that’s very good to have those type of players and for the depth of the team is very, very good.”

Pineda subbed out the remaining starters in the 71st minute. In came Quentin Westberg, Luis Abram, Matias Gallardo, Jay Fortune, Dax McCarty, Aiden McFadden, Luke Brennan and Ashton Gordon.

Pineda said he was pleased with his team’s defense in its low and mid-blocks. Its pressure caused the Rowdies trouble in their defensive third. He also liked his team’s ability to break Tampa Bay’s pressure. He said his team will work on creating more coordinated movements to break opponent’s lines.

“We dominated the game, we created a lot of chances, a lot,” Pineda said.

Pineda said the next two weeks will be focused on improving some of the finer details, including defending throw-ins, a problem last season, defending set pieces and executing its own set pieces.

“The progression is going very well,” he said. “But we need to continue improving.”

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Atlanta United’s 2024 schedule

Feb. 24 at Columbus, 2 p.m.

March 9 vs. New England, 7:30 p.m.

March 17 vs. Orlando, 7 p.m., FS1

March 23 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

March 31 vs. Chicago, 3:30 p.m., Fox

April 6 at NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

April 14 vs. Philadelphia, 2:30 p.m., Fox

April 20 vs. Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

April 27 at Chicago, 8:30 p.m.

May 4 vs. Minnesota, 7:30 p.m.

May 11 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

May 15 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

May 18 at Nashville, 1:30 p.m.

May 25 vs. LAFC, 7:30 p.m.

May 29 at Miami, 7:30 p.m.

June 2 vs Charlotte, 4:30 p.m., Fox

June 15 vs. Houston, 7:30 p.m.

June 19 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 22 at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m.

June 29 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

July 3 at New England, 7:30 p.m.

July 6 at Real Salt Lake, 9:30 p.m.

July 13 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 17 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

July 20 vs. Columbus, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 31 at Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. Nashville, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 18 vs. Miami, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 28 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 2 vs. Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 at Orlando, 6 p.m.

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