Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS season opener was saved by two moments of magic from Thiago Almada.
Almada striped a 22-yard shot off the bottom of the crossbar in the 93rd minute - and then connected on a free kick from 25 yards in the 99th minute - to earn a 2-1 win against San Jose on Saturday in front of an announced crowd of 67,538 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He became the second player in MLS history to score a game-tying and then game-winning goal, according to the league’s stats provider.
It was also the first time in franchise history Atlanta United rallied to win when losing in the 75th minute.
What started with a tifo honoring former Atlanta United player Anton Walkes, continued with a Make-A-Wish moment for child Nathan Deal, who was the honorary captain, ended with the type of moments that can theme a season.
What a way to begin.
“I was really important for us to start this season with a win, especially at home,” Almada said. “So I’m very happy.”
The two moments of brilliance wiped away a performance that looked very much like one from Atlanta United’s 2022 season.
Atlanta United’s defense was punished early in the game for the Quakes’ goal. Falling behind was a significant issue last season and among many reasons the team failed to make the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
Before Almada’s right-footed thunderbolt, which was assisted by Brooks Lennon, and his free kick, Atlanta United’s offense took many shots from outside the 18-yard box, also something that happened last season. Against San Jose, 15 of the first 18 shots came from outside the box.
Of the three taken inside the box, one was a missed penalty kick by Luiz Araujo. Just three of the 18 shots forced a save. To contrast, four of San Jose’s 10 shots were on goal and eight of the 10 were taken inside Atlanta United’s 18-yard box.
Brad Guzan didn’t want to hear that the game seemed like one mostly from last season.
“Don’t compare anything to last year because I’m telling you now it’s a new year,” he said. “It’s a new team. It’s got nothing to do with last year, OK? So stop that narrative right now.”
Manager Gonzalo Pineda selected an 11 that was composed mostly of the players that started during the preseason. Guzan started in goal in his first real action since suffering a ruptured Achilles last season, with Miles Robinson, also experiencing his first meaningful action since rupturing his achilles last season, and JuanJo Purata as the centerbacks.
Lennon and Andrew Gutman were the fullbacks. Franco Ibarra, Matheus Rossetto and Almada were in the midfield, Caleb Wiley and Araujo were on the wings, and Jackson Conway started at striker. Pineda was without Giorgos Giakoumakis, whose visa hasn’t been approved, and Machop Chol, who suffered a hamstring injury during the preseason.
Another presumed starter, Derrick Etienne, isn’t yet 90-minutes fit after spending most of the preseason recovering from an injury sustained last season while with Columbus.
San Jose struck first with Jeremy Ebobisse heading in a cross from Cristian Espinoza in the 12th minute. Ebobisse got in front of Lennon, who slid over to try to get in front of him after he ran past Ibarra, who stopped following him about 12 yards from goal.
Espinoza received the ball in space on the right following a diagonal pass from Rodrigues that went over Atlanta United’s forward and midfield lines. Guzan tried to punch away the cross before it reached Ebobisse.
Atlanta United’s first shot didn’t come until the 22nd minute. It was taken by Araujo from outside the 18-yard box and was blocked. Pineda said in the first week of preseason that the team was going to work on trying to take fewer long-range shots this season than it did last season.
Atlanta United had several promising attacks in the first half lose steam because the player on the ball was too indecisive, giving San Jose time to regroup.
Atlanta United won a penalty kick in the 38th minute when a cross by Gutman was blocked by the arms of a sliding Paul Marie. Araujo attempted the penalty. His shot missed the whole goal, sailing left of the left upright. The sequence started with an interception and smart run by Ibarra, who laid a pass off to Gutman to run onto near the end line.
Gutman said among the good things about having Guzan back was his leadership, a moment which happened at halftime when Guzan gave his teammates an accountability pep talk.
“We need to hold ourselves to a certain standard; we need to make sure that we don’t come in here feeling sorry for ourselves,” he said. “In any sport, the opposition is coming in here to try and do something that they think is going to give them the opportunity to win. We’re trying to do something else that we think is going to give ourselves the best chance to win. The other team is entitled to have the ball. The other team is obviously going to score goals at times. It’s how we react in situations, it’s how we help each other. It’s how we fight for each other.”
Pineda made two changes in the 56th minute, bringing in Etienne for Wiley, and Miguel Berry for Conway.
With the offense still struggling to create much near San Jose’s goal, Pineda brought on Amar Sejdic and Luis Abram for Rossetto and Purata in the 80th minute.
Lennon had the best chance to tie the game in the 87th minute when he received the ball about 10 yards from San Jose’s goal. His shot went wide.
San Jose coach Luchi Gonzalez said he felt his team controlled the game by using a low-block and opportunistic offense. He said they could have been ahead 2-0 going into stoppage time.
“I was very confident we were going to win the game,” he said.
And then Almada stepped up.
The first goal started with a corner kick, won by Gutman, which was noticed and complimented by Pineda. The ball came to Almada from 25 yards away. The shot went through a group of players.
The second started when Etienne won a foul a few yards away from where the first goal was struck. Almada and Araujo, one right-footed, one left-footed, stood over the ball. Almada struck it with his right foot around the wall and into the upper right corner.
“What was special about the end of the game, which was the the main part probably for the fans, that emotion when you think you’re going to lose, you’re upset,” Pineda said. “And then the emotions come for them. The first goal from Thiago from outside the box and then that last foul and then that amazing golazo from Thiago. Well, it was very special for us and and I hope the fans are happy.”
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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