“Just stepping on the field, you know, that would have been enough for me but to get the goal was even more special,” said Firmino, who has scored eight goals in 14 appearances with Atlanta United 2.
Fielding four Homegrown players in the starting lineup of a league match for the first time in franchise history, Atlanta United (7-4-8) played well. Among the Homegrowns, Tyler Wolff scored his fourth goal and Ajani Fortune earned his first assist. Two more Homegrowns ended up coming off the bench and playing. It was the most used in an MLS match in franchise history.
But Atlanta United’s propensity for giving up somewhat bizarre goals continued with NYCFC scoring one in the first half and another in the second, both by Gabriel Pereira, in front of an announced attendance of 42,557.
The performance was much improved from the two previous matches in which manager Gonzalo Pineda was forced to use a makeshift line. Those were the 6-1 loss at Columbus in March and the defeat to Memphis in the U.S. Open Cup.
This time, Atlanta United, without a Designated Player on its game-day roster for the first time since Oct. 2020, dominated sizable portions of the match. It couldn’t capitalize on all of its chances, including a miss by Wolff just yards from goal in the first half. Atlanta United finished with 12 shots, five on goal. NYCFC put all three of its shots on goal. But NYCFC finished with a higher expected goal total, 0.9, to Atlanta United’s 0.72.
Pineda went with a youthful lineup because he was without several starters because of suspension, travel from international play, or being with their national teams. That group included leading scorer Giorgos Giakoumakis, who was suspended, attacking midfielder Thiago Almada, who returned from Jakarta earlier in the day where he was with the Argentina national team, and centerback Miles Robinson, who was with the U.S. preparing for the Gold Cup.
The Homegrown group was composed of Wolff at right wing, Caleb Wiley at left wing, Fortune in central midfield and Noah Cobb at centerback. The rest of the lineup included Miguel Berry at striker, Amar Sejdic at attacking midfielder, Franco Ibarra at defensive midfielder, Brooks Lennon and Andrew Gutman as the fullbacks, JuanJo Purata as the other centerback and Brad Guzan in goal.
The group had combined to score 12 goals this season, which wasn’t bad because NYCFC as a team had scored just 18.
New York City needed just 42 seconds to score however.
It forced a turnover by Cobb near midfield. The ball was passed out to the right wing to Pereira, who dribbled into the box, worked the ball onto his left foot against Gutman and hit a curler past Guzan and into the lower left corner. It was the second time in four matches that Atlanta United allowed a goal within the opening minute.
Atlanta United answered in the 11th minute when Wolff blasted a shot between the legs of goalkeeper Luiz Barraza. It was Wolff’s second goal in as many matches. The play started with a nice interchange of passing and movement between Wiley, who made a dummying motion as the ball came near, and Fortune, who took the ball and was tackled in the 18-yard box. Wolff was first to get to the loose ball. He took a touch and hammered a shot from a tight angle, just a few yards away from Barraza. The goal was the club’s 350th in franchise history in league play.
Atlanta United failed to take advantage of a great scoring opportunity in the 24th minute when a cross by Wiley rolled over the top of the foot of a sliding Wolff. He only needed to tap it into the goal from two yards away. The play started when Sejdic forced a turnover near midfield before he played the ball into space for Wiley to reach. Wolff said he saw the pass late.
NYCFC took a 2-1 lead. Atlanta United could consider itself unfortunate. The ball bounced awkwardly off Fortune in Atlanta United’s defensive third and went to Richie Ledezma. He passed it to Pereira, who beat Guzan with a shot from 12 yards.
The goal was similar to the first allowed by Atlanta United. The sequence started with an NYCFC dead ball. Atlanta United made an interception only for the ball to end up with an NYCFC player in a good position to attack.
Pineda said the issue on both goals was transition defense.
Pineda subbed in Machop Chol and Matheus Rossetto for Wiley and Fortune in the 63rd minute. Alonso came on for Wolff in the 77th minute. Luke Brennan and Firmino made their MLS debuts in the 87th minute in place of Ibarra and Sejdic.
“The biggest thing I think for them is to always feel comfortable and to know that all the guys on the team want them to succeed,” Sejdic said. “So, coming in today, even the guys off the bench, I think they did very, very well.”
Pineda said he put Brennan in on the left wing and told Firmino to play almost as a second 10 beside Chol.
“I called them up because they have been performing very well,” Pineda said. “We’ve been watching live a few games at home. And I think they’re up to the standard.”
Atlanta United is 6-1-3 at home. It will play at the Red Bulls on Saturday. Brennan and Firmino are also available to play in that match.
Pineda said there was much improvement from the Columbus match and that he felt his team deserved to win. Though it didn’t earn all three points, he did like the fight the team showed.
Atlanta United is 1-4-4 when allowing the first goal. Firmino’s goal was the team’s 13th in the 75th minute or later and the 10th scored in the 86th minute or later.
“I liked the competitive side, I liked that we never give up and never giving up is a signature of championship team,” Pineda said. “And I liked that even though we were a young team ... the mentality and the resilience that we learn from this and we’re ready to compete, and I think we did that.”
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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 FC 2
June 24 at New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.
July 2 vs. Philadelphia Union, 4 p.m., Fox
July 8 at CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.
July 12 at New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m.
July 15 vs. Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m., FS1
July 25 at Miami in Leagues Cup, 7:30 p.m.
July 29 vs. Cruz Azul in Leagues Cup, 8 p.m.
Aug. 20 at Seattle Sounders, 10:30 p.m.
Aug. 26 vs. Nashville SC, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 30 vs. FC Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 2 at FC Dallas, 8:30 p.m.
Sept. 16 vs. Inter Miami CF, 7:30 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