Players-only meeting helped change Atlanta United before Game 2

Atlanta United’s season-saving 4-2 victory over Columbus on Tuesday in the MLS playoffs wasn’t all about a change in formation, or tactics, or having Thiago Almada back, though he was immensely important.

It was about honesty.

After a listless 2-0 loss in Game 1 in Ohio, manager Gonzalo Pineda, his staff and the players met and talked about what went wrong. It was a good talk.

The next day, after the team returned to Atlanta, the players held another meeting, a players-only meeting, led by Giorgos Giakoumakis and captain Brad Guzan.

“I think it was really nice to hear everyone’s opinion about what he felt individually,” Giakoumakis said. “We put it all out on the table, and I think we faced the reality that we were really bad. It was a very poor performance from us. The intensity was not there. And we said that now we’re gonna bounce back. And we have to be the team we used to be. And that’s what we did today.”

Giakoumakis said the players held the meeting at the training ground without the coaches because he said sometimes it’s natural for the players to be afraid to tell truths. They wanted the players to be able to speak without worry.

Whatever was said worked.

Whether Pineda knew about the meeting, he could tell that something had changed for the better during the training sessions before Game 2.

“I knew that players were coming in strong mentally,” he said. “And I saw that in their eyes. I saw that in the reactions. I saw that in the training session. So I was confident yesterday. Yes.”

Being a veteran, Giakoumakis knew that co-calling a meeting wasn’t the only thing needed.

During the game, he chewed on the officials throughout the first half. He earned a yellow card for refusing to move away from the ball before a free kick. He gesticulated wildly at an assistant referee after he was tripped trying to run onto a through pass.

It all was done on purpose.

“Everything plays its role in order to keep the team aggressive and (to) alert them to be intense in the game for as long as possible,” he said. “Sometimes you need that, especially for the younger players. I don’t want them to fall asleep in a good way. Because in the playoffs, you cannot be calm even for a second, you’re going to pay the price. And that’s why I was trying to be intense all the time. And to give them this push.”

Giakoumakis did more than organize, talk and act. Most important, he produced, scoring a goal and adding two assists to become the first player in franchise history to have three goal contributions in one MLS playoff match. The assists came on goals scored by Xande Silva and Edwin Mosquera. Giakoumakis should have had another assists after playing Silva into an empty net, but his shot went over the crossbar.

Still, the selflessness impressed Pineda.

“Normally our No. 9, who wants to score every goal possible, was humble and a team player, playing the best possible pass,” Pineda said. “Now, it was of course a mistake from Xande, but that reaction from the whole team to come together and support him in that moment, it wasn’t easy because at times those mental breaks where you miss a good goal, those can be a mental break for the team.”

Now, they have to keep it going in the decisive Game 3 on Sunday in Columbus. Giakoumakis plans to again lead.

“Sometimes you need to give something more as an experienced player in order to push the younger players to follow you,” he said. “And it’s normal for me. It’s normal for them to be stressed. It’s normal for them to get lost a little bit in the games, the kinds of games like that. So we had to give something more, not them.”

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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, Cincinnati 2

Nov. 1 Columbus 2, Atlanta United 0

Nov. 7 Atlanta United 4, Columbus 2

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