Atlanta United had to defeat Inter Miami on Wednesday night. Not because the team would’ve been knocked out of playoff contention. Not because Atlanta was the better team. And not even because the Five Stripes were desperate.
They had to defeat Inter Miami to solidify their mindset as a true “winning” team. What’s so strange about the match, though, was that nobody realized how vital the win was to the five years of Five Stripes until the whistle blew for half time.
Atlanta United has been through the ringer since Josef Martinez hit the soil with his ACL torn a year and a half ago. 2020 was a total loss, minus the acquisition of Marcelino “Mando” Moreno, but there was hope at the end of the year with the hiring of Gabriel Heinze. A few months and less water bottles later, that excitement was long gone. Heinze was not the manager the team needed, and that became clear as 2021 started with two wins and a whole bunch of draws. It felt like Atlanta was tying games just out of pure spite for the hand it had been dealt, and something had to give. The spirit of Atlanta knew it was a better team.
In fact, Atlanta won a game on May 15th against Montreal thanks to the aforementioned Mandalorian, and then didn’t win a game until August 7th against the Columbus Crew. Everyone has seen, and it has been well documented, the resurgence of attacking soccer in Atlanta since Heinze left, Rob Valentino took interim duty, and Gonzalo Pineda was positioned at the helm. But no matter what, being the second team to score a goal in a match was almost always a death sentence for Atlanta United Football Club.
That brief history is mentioned to add in this: Atlanta United hasn’t had a come-from-behind win this year. As a matter of fact (as far as I can tell) Atlanta United hasn’t had a comeback since the legendary 2018 match against San Jose. That match helped propel the Five Stripes to their MLS Cup in many ways thanks to the confidence it gave in digging deep to pull out a win.
And that’s exactly what Atlanta did on Wednesday, October 27th, 2021 against Inter Miami.
The stage was set. Heinze was out as of mid-July. Gonzalo Pineda was in, with an outstanding record thus far to boot. Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra has swung for the fences with the signing of Luiz Araujo, and he was already paying off. The playoffs were always going to be a stretch after the terrible beginning to the season, but the “fun” atmosphere of the new regime was addictive and refreshing.
Up until Wednesday night, Atlanta United had 0 wins this season when trailing at the half. They hadn’t been able to dig deep and find that heart that was suppressed from the earlier half of the year. But that all came to an end against Miami.
Gonzalo Higuain silenced Mercedes-Benz Stadium with his penalty kick goal after a hair-thin VAR review on Brad Guzan. The Five Stripes entered half time down 1-0 and the Eastern Conference standings were looking even thinner than they had been. A man in the bathroom near section 122 (shout-out to whoever you are) came in at the half and said, “Alright, they come back and snag two goals in the second half, boys, let’s do this!”
Then the funniest thing happened. Atlanta United players exited the locker room onto the pitch and were...smiling? Josef Martinez was happy and laughing. Luiz Araujo and Matheus Rossetto were chopping up their Brazilian game plan. Why were they not concerned like everyone else in the stadium?
Was it the “best training sessions the team has had” since Pineda arrived at Atlanta? Was it an attitude of “fun” that had been raised from the dead in the form of birthday cakes to the face, supporters chanting as they marched towards Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground, or a newfound energy that welled up in the locker room?
Whatever it was, Atlanta United found it and harnessed it in the second half against Miami. Marcelino Moreno entered at the 46 minute mark and provided a spark that catapulted the Five Stripes into rare territory. Ezequiel Barco slid his way across the field and found himself fouled at the top of the box; one of a record number of fouls against him. Luiz Araujo stepped up and surveyed the wall in front of him. No one was lying down to block the low shot. So what did Luiz do? He sent the low shot.
Suddenly the stadium exploded, and it felt like the Five Stripes had figured something out. They’d figured out how to reach down and draw that win out of nothing, against an opponent with nothing to lose.
And what better lesson to learn just a couple of matches prior to a winner-takes-all playoff series?
The battle continued, and though Atlanta wasn’t perfect, they were the better team. They were the team with more fight. The montage on the halo board in Mercedes-Benz Stadium with Rocky Balboa? “But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” That was never more relevant than this match at this point in Atlanta United’s existence. Pineda came in with something to prove, and a complete turnaround season is an exceptional way to make a mark. They channeled that Sylvester Stallone, that Super Saiyan, and fought their way back into a true playoff spot.
And what’s exciting is that these Five Stripes are a threat to anyone in the way. Nashville, New England, Seattle, SKC? Not a single one of those are guaranteed to beat Atlanta United. In fact, it would almost seem that the mention of the name Atlanta United has garnered a bit of fear in any foe in the way, just as it did in 2018.
Their identity isn’t set at this point. It probably won’t be until next season. But no team knows quite how to prepare for what this team brings to the pitch. Because when they find “it,” they “find it.”
The celebration says it all pic.twitter.com/draMN5eCRV— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) October 28, 2021
Atlanta United has learned the most valuable lesson a team can ever learn going into any high-stakes set of games: how to be confident and dangerous. They took a team whose back was against the wall and laughed at them, despite being the ones down with 45 minutes to go. They clawed their way back into it, and easily could have had one or two more goals if not for some keeper luck and offsides mishaps. For a team in a rebuild, nothing is more important. Pineda should be proud, as should every player and fan.
Ultimately, the Five Stripes came out on top and have a game in hand going into the final stretch of the regular season. What was widely considered impossible a few months ago is distinctly within reach right now, and the team just learned about and lived through its secret weapon. Unknowingly, this win against Miami may have been the most important victory to prepare Atlanta for a run into the playoffs.