“It’s still sinking in a little bit,” Wiley said. “A few hours to fully get into me.”
It arguably was Atlanta United’s best performance under manager Gonzalo Pineda. The goals were beautiful, each exemplifying some tactics that Pineda has wanted to see, and the defense mostly was tight in posting its first shutout a few days after Pineda said the team needed to love clean sheets.
Despite possessing the ball less than Charlotte, Atlanta United (2-0-1) took more shots (14-12), put more shots on goal (6-3), created more chances (14-7) and finished with more expected goals (1.53-1.48).
“Was it perfect?” Pineda said. “.... We weren’t dominating possession, disrupting their aggressive pressure. It wasn’t like that necessarily, but we adapted very well to every phase of the game, and that’s why I’m very proud.”
The pre-match activities included a tifo tribute to the late Anton Walkes, who played for both clubs during his MLS career. He was killed in a boating accident in south Florida in January. The tifo featured Walkes wearing a jersey that was half Atlanta United’s and half Charlotte’s. Atlanta United’s assistant coaches also wore warm-up tops with “AW” on the back. The crowd, which featured at least 1,000 Atlanta United supporters who made the drive up I-85, completed the moment by chanting “Walkes” for almost a minute.
Pineda and Atlanta United’s players thought the tifo was very classy.
“I said in the pregame huddle, let’s do it for Anton,” fullback Brooks Lennon said.
Pineda made one injury-forced change to the starting 11, selecting Amar Sejdic to replace Matheus Rossetto (hamstring). The rest of the starters were Miguel Berry at striker with Wiley and Araujo on the wings, Thiago Almada and Franco Ibarra in the central midfield, Lennon and Andrew Gutman as the fullbacks, Miles Robinson and JuanJo Purata as the centerbacks, and Brad Guzan in goal.
Atlanta United took a 1-0 lead in the fifth minute on a goal by Wiley, his first this season. Sejdic pressed near midfield and created a turnover. Smart pressing is something the team has worked on. Almada picked up the ball and saw Wiley streaking unmarked down the middle of the field. Wiley took a few touches and slammed a left-footed shot from 12 yards. It was Atlanta United’s first goal in the first half this season and its first from inside the 18-yard box.
Wiley said getting to that spot where he scored is something the team trains to do.
“That’s something Gonzo does a really good job telling us about, especially my position being at that back post spot, whenever the ball is on the right-hand side, just being in that area,” Wiley said. “You never know when or where the ball is going to drop, and you’ve just got to be able to put it in.”
Atlanta United doubled its lead in the 12th minute on a goal by Araujo, who hit a low, hard left-footed shot into the near post from 18 yards. Wiley earned the assist with a pass hit with the outside of his left foot across the top of the 18-yard box. It was Araujo’s first goal and Wiley’s first assist this season. It also was a bit of redemption for Araujo, who missed a penalty kick in the first week and didn’t play well last week. It was the first time Wiley scored and assisted in an MLS game.
“Even if I didn’t score today, it wouldn’t change my confidence,” Araujo said. “I really trust my work.”
Charlotte put Atlanta United under pressure in the next few minutes. Unlike last season, when the team frequently would give up goals after it scored, the Five Stripes didn’t fold.
Referee Ismail Elfath overturned his own penalty call in the 32nd minute after reviewing a play in which Lennon collided with Kamil Jozwiak. It was a tough call for Elfath because Joswiak totally missed volleying a cross. Lennon had jumped to try to block the expected shot. As both players came down, they collided.
Wiley increased Atlanta United’s lead to 3-0 by finishing one of the prettiest sequences in franchise history. It started with Robinson patiently waiting on someone to come open. He found Almada, who ran across the formation from the left into space in the right channel, on Atlanta United’s side of the field. Almada turned and started upfield. He shrugged off one attempted tackle before passing to Araujo, who took a few touches before passing it back toward Almada, who had continued his run into Charlotte’s 18-yard box. He allowed the pass to roll past him and to Wiley, who one-timed it for his second goal in the second minute of first-half stoppage time.
Wiley said he was surprised that Almada let the ball roll through.
“Props to him for making it happen,” Wiley said.
Pineda subbed in Giorgos Giakoumakis for Berry in the 59th minute. Derrick Etienne Jr. and Santiago Sosa came on for Wiley and Sejdic in the 70th minute.
The game ended with one group of Atlanta United’s supporters chanting, “Atlanta” with another group responding, “United” as Charlotte supporters streamed out of the stadium.
Atlanta United will host Portland on March 18.
“We’re setting the bar high in 2023 for this group and this team, and to pick up all three points in our first road game against a tough opponent in Charlotte, it’s great for our confidence moving forward,” Lennon said.
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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 at Charlotte FC, noon, Fox
March 18 vs. Portland Timbers, 7:30 p.m.
March 25 at Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.
April 1 vs. New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.
April 8 at New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.
April 15 at Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m.
April 23 vs. Chicago Fire FC, 4:30 p.m., FS1
April 29 at Nashville SC, 1:30 p.m., Fox
May 6 at Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.
May 13 vs. Charlotte FC, 7:30 p.m.
May 17 vs. Colorado Rapids, 7:30 p.m.
May 20 at Chicago Fire FC, 8:30 p.m.
May 27 at Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m.
May 31 vs. New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m., FS1
June 3 at Los Angeles FC, 10:30 p.m.
June 10 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.
June 21 vs. New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.
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
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