For anyone who has followed Atlanta United for any length of time, particularly on this page, you've probably heard other fans reminisce about the glory days of the club, where we consistently dominated the competition and were a cut above the rest. Maybe you were lucky enough to witness a Josef Martinez hat trick or a multi-goal win against opposition so lost they couldn't tell if they were from New York or New Jersey. Back then, the team could be up multiple goals but still press for more with that trademark killer instinct to run up the score. It's been a while since we've seen a performance like that from Atlanta on the pitch, but for those of us with an interest in esports, we still get to watch Atlanta United run the show.
What is eMLS?
If you're unfamiliar with eMLS or even FIFA in general, here's a brief introduction: FIFA is a wildly popular game in which you control your favorite soccer team and try to win games with combinations of different tactics, shots, skill moves, passing play, goalkeeper positioning, yada yada. FIFA is very beginner friendly (lucky for me) while also having a very high skill cap which allows for impressive displays of coordination in competitive play. Each team in MLS has an eMLS representative (or two) who competes on their behalf in a few major events each year. The most notable tournaments are the League Series One, League Series Two, and eMLS Cup. The winner of eMLS Cup qualifies for the FIFA eWorld Cup
Atlanta in eMLS
While esports is not for everyone, and may never reach the widespread heights of popularity where traditional competitions set the bar, it is an area characterized by growth and massive potential. Atlanta United realized this and in 2019 decided to go all in by signing brazilian FIFA professional Paulo Neto as our primary representative in eMLS. At the time Paulo Neto was ranked #4 among all players globally, and he has not disappointed expectations anyone may have had for him. In 2020, he won a duos tournament playing alongside Franco Escobar, which (needless to say for anyone familiar with how competitive Escobar was) was incredibly entertaining. Neto is a strategic, clinical player who is best known for his extreme composure no matter if he is up by 10 or down by 5. The most common criticism he receives is for not slowing down when up by multiple goals; rather than trying to conserve a win by a goal or two he continues to push for more.
Paulo Neto played well in events from 2019-2022, consistently finishing in the top three or four places but never quite winning until he went on an incredible run in eMLS Cup 2022, winning the tournament to cap off a dominant year in eMLS while also qualifying for the FIFA eWorld Cup. He continued to impress at much higher level of play in the World Cup, where he competed not only against other club players but also against players from esports organizations. He earned an 8th place finish overall, which is a massive achievement even without a trophy to show for it.
2023 League Series One
The first tournament of this year gave an opportunity for Paulo Neto to show he can continue winning trophies now that he has broken his streak of runner up finishes. The competition had three stages:
Qualifying: Every player plays each other once. The top 4 performers on points in qualifying earn a place directly in the playoff stage quarterfinals, without having to go through the group stage or first round of playoffs. The bottom four players from qualifying do not move on to the group stage.
Group stage: Players who finished 5th-26th in qualifying are divided into 4 groups (two of 6, two of 5 for some reason) and play each player in their group once. The top two players from each group advance to the playoff stage round of 16.
Playoff stage: Players who qualified through the group stage play each other in the round of 16, and winners advanced to play the top four players from qualifying in the round of 8 in a single elimination bracket.
Paulo Neto did not play his best in qualifying, getting favorable results against top players but frequently dropping points against opponents from the lower end of the standings. In the last few matches, he fell from a top four position to sixth place, largely due to a loss to LAFC's Pabs who escaped elimination by just one point. This meant he had to go through the group stage, and happened to be placed in the hardest group, containing 6 players instead of 5, including impressive St. Louis FC newcomer NR7, who was already a favorite to make a run in the tournament.
On group stage day, Neto showed up back in his usual form. He dominated his group, winning out with the exception of another loss to Pabs in his last game of the group. His performance earned him the winning seed from his group, and he moved on to the playoff stage.
Neto breezed through the round of 16, with an expected win over Philadelphia 3-1. His round of 8 matchup was against DC United's CJ, who was a favorite to win their side of the bracket after finishing 3rd in qualifying. Atlanta and DC have a bit of history, with Neto having wiped the floor with CJ by double digits in a tournament late last year. However, CJ has definitely improved and become a better player since then, so I really wasn't sure how this would go. In contrast to Paulo Neto's calm and composed demeanor, CJ is a highly emotional player who can be dragged down if he is losing early or can ride the high of an early goal. PN went up early for Atlanta, and ended up carrying that momentum to a statement 9-3 win.
Atlanta's semi-final matchup was against Nashville's Joksan. This match is interesting as both players really reflect the best version of their clubs well. Joksan is known to be very strong defensively, an unusual trait in FIFA, while thriving off efficiency when he counters up top. Neto controlled the game well despite conceding first, showing some tactical changes to adjust for the unique Nashville-esque defensive style, and went up 5-1 before slowing down for a 5-3 finish
The winner of the other side of the bracket was Minnesota United's Lamps. He is a veteran of eMLS with multiple event wins. Like CJ, he is a very emotional player in contrast to Paulo Neto, and in his previous playoff matchups had displayed some showmanship to put it nicely.
Statistically, he plays similarly to PN, but had better numbers going into the final:
Despite his edge on numbers, the commentators (including a familiar face in Jillian Sakovits) unanimously picked Paulo Neto as the favorite to win.
Oh yeah, plus Jillian represented ATL with this perfect jab in the build up to the match:
We have an MLS Cup. And a USOC.
(Here's another link since Youtube Clip embedding doesn't seem to work right https://youtu.be/rza4Uz05pv0?t=10896 )
Paulo Neto went on to give the most dominant championship performance I've seen since when UGA played earlier this month, with an absolutely unnecessary but also totally enjoyable 9-1 obliteration of Lamps in the two-legged final. Neto scored early, and went into the half with a decent 2-0 lead without allowing Lamps a chance all half. At 60' of the first leg, the game was still very much a contest at 2-0, but it all went one way after that. Neto unleashed a vertical looping cross over the top to link up with a called run from his striker, which gave me nostalgia for the Gressel -> Josef play in the 2019 ECF. The first leg finished 3-0.
The second leg started with Neto trying to burn some time and play safe, which as mentioned earlier is not his strong suit, until he converted a penalty at 30'. After that, he clearly felt the game was out of reach, so naturally he threw everything forward to run up the score as much as physically possible. By halftime, the score was 5-0 on aggregate. 6-0 at 75', 7-0 at 77', a consolation goal made it 7-1 at 80', but that didn't slow down PN as he made it 8-1 shortly after with a ridiculous effort from close to a third of the way down the field and 9-1 at 88'.
After the game ended, he went and grabbed the weird box-shaped trophy thing and gave an interview with Jillian where he was basically like "Yeah that was good. Hopefully I win again later this year." with all the excitement of a panda looking at bamboo.
Atlanta is the team to beat in solo and duo events in eMLS after winning back to back titles, and anyone who enjoys watching games that are mental rather than physical should take the time to catch a match or two when League Series Two rolls around. Neto is the man to beat, and his attitude and performances are impressively consistent.