Was ‘electric’ night at Mercedes-Benz an interlude or start of something more?

Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada (10)thumps up the crowd after scoring during the second half against Columbus Crew in Game 2 of a first-round MLS playoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. 
 Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada (10)thumps up the crowd after scoring during the second half against Columbus Crew in Game 2 of a first-round MLS playoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Thiago Almada charged on a dead run down the left wing and into the 18-yard box, the ball rolling dutifully at his feet. As Columbus goalie Patrick Schulte closed down the angle, Atlanta United’s brilliant midfielder waited to the last instant before chipping the ball with his right foot over Schulte’s outstretched left arm and into the goal.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium erupted in delight over the display of artistry. They roared, too, with their hunger for victory being sated with a rout of the Crew in Game 2 of the best-of-three MLS Cup first-round series. The home team ultimately walked off the field 4-2 winners.

Almada patted his heart with his right hand and pointed into the stands. For perhaps more than a few of the 41,850 filling MBS and definitely for one of Almada’s teammates, the frenzied environment was a reclamation of the club’s most glorious days.

“It was jumping from start to finish, and they were loud,” said midfielder Jay Fortune, who was a teenaged member of the club’s academy when he sat in the same stands watching Atlanta United march through the MLS Cup playoffs. “Sitting on the bench, you kind of get reminiscing a little bit on what it was like back then, as well.”

For better or worse, Tuesday night’s win was the team’s most significant victory since the 2019 season, when Atlanta United followed its MLS Cup championship season in 2018 by winning the U.S. Open Cup and reaching the Eastern Conference finals of the MLS Cup.

The options for the biggest win in the past four seasons have been the slimmest of pickings. After 2019, the club made only one of the next three postseasons (getting bounced in the first round in 2021 by New York City FC) and hasn’t defeated an MLS team in U.S. Open Cup play.

Further, the Five Stripes showed up at MBS Tuesday on whatever the opposite of a roll is. In their final eight games of the regular season, their only two wins were over non-playoff teams. In the playoff opener, with Almada sitting out a one-game suspension for an accumulation of yellow cards, they were overwhelmed 2-0 by the Crew in Columbus, Ohio, failing to register a single shot on goal.

Tuesday held the potential to continue the team’s post-2019 failings and also meekly finish out the season.

But the night turned out brilliantly. The club’s legion of loyal supporters set the stage. Fortune called the crowd “electric” for the entire 90 minutes.

“It felt like an extra man that we had on the field (Tuesday),” he said.

Atlanta United supporters groups chant as they arrive at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium for game 2 of a first-round MLS playoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. 
 Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

icon to expand image

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Forward Giorgos Giakoumakis went airborne to head a cross from defender Brooks Lennon off the post in the 38th minute for a 1-0 lead, cupping his ear to the roaring crowd. The Crew answered seven minutes later after exploiting a giveaway in the defensive end by winger Xande Silva.

But, in the final moments of stoppage time in the first half, Silva atoned when Giakoumakis rolled a diagonal pass for him in the penalty area that he roofed over Schulte with his right foot. He celebrated by donning a Spider-Man mask (a tribute to his 2-year-old son Xande, watching from home) handed to him by a club staffer waiting behind the goal. Silva earned extra dad points by going the extra mile and firing imaginary webs into the stands.

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Midfielder Edwin Mosquera and Almada finished the scoring in the second half. Almada’s score – his 12th of the season – was just part of a formidable evening of play for the Argentine who earlier this week was named the league’s Young Player of the Year. Coach Gonzalo Pineda praised his defense and for how he handled the defensive pressure applied by Columbus.

“The amount of his heart and his hunger that he showed (Tuesday), it was amazing,” Pineda said. “He had to do it because we missed him the last game, so he kind of was in debt to the team. I think he did what we were all expecting from him.”

The four goals were the most scored in the club’s playoff history. Pineda considered them something of a gift to Atlanta United supporters. It is easy, he said, to think of the relationship with fans as something of a one-way transaction, where the team calls on supporters to provide their energy (to say nothing of their money).

“Something we have to remember as people involved in football, professional football, is we try to give happiness to people,” he said. “That’s our job, to provide happiness to our fans, and I think we have to remember that.”

In a further show of laudable humanity, Pineda brushed off the notion of his players feeling pressure, sharing a message he gave to players prior to Game 2.

“We talked about many other things that can happen in life that put way more pressure and stress on people,” he said. “There are way worse situations than (playing in the) playoffs against a tough team.”

A thrilling win, increased self-awareness and the opportunity to keep playing soccer – quite a hat trick.

And now what?

Can Atlanta United build on a convincing victory and finish off the Crew in Columbus on Sunday? Is it the first step in a playoff run? Or, more glumly, was Tuesday merely a brief taste of glory in the continued stretch of unexceptional play?

The club’s future is not easily divined. These could well be Almada’s final days in Atlanta. The boyish wizard pines for a transfer to a European club and a shot at a grander stage. The prospect of having to build around a new star looms.

Veteran defender Miles Robinson, one of the team’s few remaining links to its MLS Cup championship team, may also be departing, as could others. Club president Garth Lagerwey, hired a year ago, and vice president Carlos Bocanegra have decisions to make. As players lingered on the field after the game thanking fans, there was recognition that this could well be the last time in MBS this season. (The format switches after the first round to single-game knockout with home field determined by seeding.) For some of them, probably the last time for good.

But, the offseason is warded off at least through Sunday. Win then and it’s onto the Eastern Conference semifinals against Orlando City SC, an outfit not to be feared.

On a raucous night in Atlanta’s sports palace, the possibilities opened up.

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