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Atlanta United recaptures flair of their early seasons

"2017 Orlando City at Atlanta United MLS Game" by Bama in ATL is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
"2017 Orlando City at Atlanta United MLS Game" by Bama in ATL is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Atlanta United has recaptured the attention of Major League Soccer (MLS) behind a sparkling offense and stifling defense. Since they first started playing in 2017, their team was offense-heavy and lightning-quick in transition, scoring goals with regularity not seen anywhere else in MLS. After the 2019 season, however, the team hit a rough patch from which they had not recovered until now.

The team was largely dependent on Josef Martínez, a classic forward who stood alongside the opponent’s defensive line, waiting for any through ball to send him racing toward the goal. With this playing style, he earned MLS MVP honors in the 2018 season while leading Atlanta to the city’s first championship in more than two decades in that same season.

A season later, Martínez tore his ACL in the 2020 season opener, leaving the team scrambling to find a replacement for their talisman. In the history of the team, Martínez has scored roughly 34% of all Atlanta United goals, scoring 111 before leaving the team for another MLS club prior to the 2023 season. Leading up to this season, many questions were asked about who would replace his production since he had been the leading goal scorer for five of their six seasons in the MLS.

After his injury, the team never found the flair that the league was accustomed to seeing from them. The team ended with its first-ever losing record in 2020 and then another in 2022 while it struggled to find consistency anywhere on the field or with the coaching staff. After their inaugural head coach left after the 2018 season, the team filtered through four gaffers before landing on their current head coach, Gonzalo Pineda.

Thankfully, the 2023 season has proven different, just a few games into the 34-game-long campaign. Argentine wonderkid Thiago Almada has been the driving force behind the resurgence of the Five Stripes, as the team is called. Almada, at just 21, was called up to the senior level of Argentina’s national team for the 2022 World Cup. There, he played alongside the likes of Lionel Messi and Paulo Dybala on their way to winning the third World Cup for Argentina.

As a team, Atlanta United has been noticeably more cohesive and much stronger on the attack than they have been in years. Five goals against the Portland Timbers on Saturday, March 18th is the most they have scored in one game since 2019. Two goals from Almada in that game—including his second goal of the season directly from a free kick—catapulted him into first place in the Golden Boot race for the young season. His four assists this season are tied for first place as well.

Atlanta’s success this season is not solely reliant on Almada, however. Injuries last season took many of the team’s leaders off of the pitch for nearly the entire season, including goalkeeper Brad Guzan, center-back Miles Robinson and midfielder Ozzie Alonso. This year, Guzan and Robinson are already back with Alonso slated to return in the coming weeks, which has returned confidence to the other players who had been thrust into more minutes and responsibility than they had expected last year. Other players, like newcomer Giorgios Giakoumakis, will be expected to carry some of the load that Martínez left since Giakoumakis plays the same position with a similar incendiary attitude towards scoring.

Caleb Wiley has been an unexpected workhorse for the team, registering three goals and two assists in four starts this season. The 18-year-old winger plays down the left of the field, seemingly always available for a through ball from Almada or a cross from Brooks Lennon.

Fluid playing and constant pressure were the hallmarks of the Five Stripes when the team first started to play and after a long hiatus that has returned to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It remains to be seen whether their production will stay at the level it is right now, but there is reason to hope for the first time in years that Atlanta will add to the trophy cabinet by season’s end. 

Gabriel Kopp

Gabriel Kopp '26 is majoring in Journalism and Law and Public Policy at Mercer University. He has written for The Cluster since he started at Mercer, and currently works as the Sports Editor. When he isn't studying, he enjoys going for runs and reading the New York Times.


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