It’s simple: A team can’t win if it doesn’t score goals ... and scoring and winning were problems for Atlanta United last season.
As a result, the team missed the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
Now, after losing its iconic striker as well as two more line-leaders who accounted for 20 of the team’s goals last season, who will do the scoring and, Atlanta United hopes, winning this MLS season?
The team hopes that more chemistry that comes with minutes played and the addition of Giorgos Giakoumakis, a player who has shown spurts of scoring in Holland and Scotland, will produce the combination of skills to help bring out the best in fellow Designated Players Thiago Almada and Luiz Araujo and free-agent signee Derrick Etienne. The talent is there within the quartet to match what Atlanta United did in 2017 and 2018, when it scored 70 goals each season. And if you score, you typically win.
“He scores 15-20 goals, but it might be he scores 12 and the team scores 60 because he’s creating so many other problems,” Vice President Carlos Bocanegra said of Giakoumakis. “And Derek scores more or Luiz scores more, or Thiago scores more.”
Playing without a consistently performing striker, Atlanta United scored 48 goals last season, 11th-most in MLS. Philadelphia led MLS with 72 goals.
In some ways the team was unlucky.
Led by Josef Martinez, whose form wasn’t the same as it was from 2017-19, Ronaldo Cisneros and Dom Dwyer, none of whom are still with the club, Atlanta United finished with 55.8 expected goals (xGs), fifth-most in MLS. Seven more goals could have been the difference in seven more points, if losses were turned into draws, or 21 points, if draws were turned into wins.
That is in part why the club focused on adding a striker in Giakoumakis that it hopes can bring its goals scored closer to its xGs.
“You can see immediately that he’s a guy that is passionate about scoring goals,” manager Gonzalo Pineda said. “And what I like about him is he’s always on the move ... constantly moving, looking for gaps. And once he’s inside the team, he has those double movements that I really like.”
Bocanegra said during Giakoumakis’ introductory press conference that the team liked his hunger to score goals, his movement in the 18-yard box, his willingness to run across defenders and his ability to finish passes. Bocanegra described how Celtic, Giakoumakis’ previous team, frequently penned opponents back, which is something Atlanta United frequently does. It just needs someone who consistently can either finish those passes supplied by Almada, Araujo, Etienne, Brooks Lennon and Andrew Gutman, or set up those teammates to finish their own chances. Atlanta United’s strikers combined for only five assists in more than 3,800 minutes last season.
“So the profile that he brings, with his size that you see, his strength and determination, we thought that was going to be a great mix and a great compliment to be a part of our front four,” Bocanegra said.
The benchmark is this: In 2017, DPs Martinez, Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba combined for 41 goals. In 2018, Martinez, Almiron and Ezequiel Barco combined for 47 goals. Atlanta United made the playoffs both seasons, winning the MLS Cup in 2018. Last season, Atlanta United’s DPs combined for only 19 goals. Three players by themselves scored more than Atlanta United’s trio.
The other hope for Atlanta United is that its players can avoid injuries – something that devastated the team last season – combined with another year playing under Pineda will lead to chemistry, confidence, goals and wins.
The team has shown progress. Through four exhibitions, the group of mostly first-team starters have scored nine goals. And that has come without Giakoumakis, who is waiting on his visa, and Etienne, who is recovering from injury.
The team looks more creative with the ball than it did last season. There was a sequence against Cruz Azul in the third game that may exemplify what Atlanta United hopes to see more this season: It was a goal scored by Almada and assisted by Araujo. Left wing Caleb Wiley stayed wide, forcing his defender to stay with him. Striker Machop Chol also made a run, dragging a centerback with him and creating a one-on-one matchup for Almada.
“Goodbye,” Pineda said, offering his one-word description of how Almada finished the sequence.
“There are little things and movements in the position and style, even the guy that doesn’t participate at all in the play, like Brooks staying wide and maybe not even touching the ball, but he was stretching the back line affects everything,” Pineda said. “So again, there are little things like that, that we are trying to make every (goal) we score a team goal.”
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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule
Feb. 25 vs. San Jose Earthquakes, 7:30 p.m.
March 4 vs. Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m.
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