Why, oh why, did you kick that guy, Almada?
Atlanta United drew Supporter’s Shield winners F.C. Cincinnati on Decision Day, in what mostly played out as a fairly encouraging match. It wasn’t perfect, especially the defense in the first half, but everything will be overshadowed by the sending-off of one Thiago Almada for two silly yellow cards. Atlanta’s star playmaker will now miss the first playoff match as the Five Stripes travel north to face Columbus Crew.
Besides that, Atlanta United fielded a more-or-less first choice starting XI against a more-or-less first choice Cincy XI, and it would be Giorgos Giakoumakis who netted the brace. The team bagged the first goal after looking incredibly dangerous in the initial stages of the game.
Almada Saba GG— x - Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) October 21, 2023
That's 1️⃣6️⃣ GOALS for our TANK! pic.twitter.com/XH0MwGiJXp
Cincy would net an equalizer about 13 minutes later after a ball was sent through the box in front of Brad Guzan that simply wasn’t defended well. Atlanta didn’t let off, though, and found the go-ahead goal in the 32nd minute off a Saba cross.
Cincy would respond just before the close of the first half with a rather unfortunate scenario of Caleb Wiley getting beat on a header by 5-foot, short-inches Lucho Acosta.
And that was about where the game should’ve ended. Atlanta proved it could go away and make a statement. Cincinnati could go forward into the playoffs knowing they’re still in form. But what happened next was 45 minutes of unnecessary football that ended with potentially huge playoff implications for Atlanta United.
To first state the positive, yes, Atlanta did play down a man for almost a full half and kept the best team in the league from scoring again, and created a couple of chances of their own. That’s huge for the mentality of the team and their confidence in defending, which can hopefully translate into allowing the offense to go do their job in the playoffs while keeping some clean sheets (fingers crossed).
But Almada’s second yellow of the evening is simply frustrating. Almada isn’t typically the receiver of many yellow cards, so don’t necessarily fault Gonzalo Pineda for leaving him in. At the end of the day, Almada is a professional. No matter what Cincy’s back line may have been chirping or saying to him, he can’t make that mistake. And yes, it’s been brought up that referee Joe Dickerson is indeed the same ref that refused to punish Columbus in last year’s match at the Benz for massive amounts of time-wasting before giving Almada a red - and simultaneous three game suspension - for bumping into him after the final whistle. Take that for what it’s worth. It doesn’t excuse anything, but it may shed some light on the ridiculousness of giving a second yellow to a player in a game where neither team has much of anything substantial to play for.
The decision will certainly bleed into the actual playoffs, though, where everything is not made up and the points do, in fact, matter. Atlanta travels to Columbus for their first playoff match sometime next weekend (or shortly thereafter), and will need to get crafty to come away with a win against one of the most in-form clubs in the league right now.
Can it be done? Absolutely, and this team has to utterly believe that with every part of their heart and soul. But...you just made it a little more complicated.
Take a look below at what Gonzalo Pineda and Giorgos Giakoumakis had to say after the match.
Atlanta United Head Coach Gonzalo Pineda:
On the second yellow card to Thiago Almada
“A stupid foul. He kicked I think it was (Matt) Miazga maybe, I don’t even know who it was. He kicked a defender, a stupid second yellow card.”
On tonight’s performance and accomplishing the goal it had coming into the match
“Not the result. It’s never the goal of this franchise to tie a match, especially away. But, the performance before the red card was very good to me. It was a playoff caliber performance. We dominated possession in total control. I wasn’t happy of course with the two silly goals we conceded, but the performance overall was inspiring. We should have had more goals in the first half, but we didn’t. Then we suffered at the end. It was two different games really, when we were 11-v-11 and we were the better side. After that, in the 10-v-11, they had control and more territorial dominance, but what I do have to highlight from my team is that we didn’t give up any goals when they had the numerical advantage. We defended very well, especially inside the box when we were a man down. It’s part of the learning process. It’s encouraging and now we need to put the two parts together, the good football in the first half with the good defending inside the box in the second half. That’s a good combination for the playoffs.”
On how he would describe the defending on the two Cincinnati goals
“On those two goals it was poor defending. We talked about that at halftime. We need to do better. We always say that the space doesn’t the goals, it’s the men in the space. We need to feel that a little bit more. We have to match the runners inside the box, not be zonal in a sense there. But we also need to do defend those types of crosses better. The first one, we were broken down on the right side and were out of position. It was a good cross there as well, credit to Cincinnati. But on the second one we have to defend better. We can’t allow that amount of space at the top of the box to someone as talented as (Alvaro) Barreal, so we need to work on that for sure.”
On what he liked about the team’s attack in the first half
“Everything. Our buildup was very good, we played well out of the back. Then it’s not just about playing out of the back, but it’s about progressing the ball quickly enough to have some momentum going forward. Once we break the lines, if we take the first goal as an example. Great pass from (Luis) Abram to Thiago who has the time and space to open up the play. He finds Saba and then we find the goal. It’s that understanding of how to rotate in the middle that will help us disrupt Cincinnati’s pressure. I liked the fluidity and movement from side-to-side and that we played simple. That was a topic before the match, that we wanted to play simple. Play one, two touches and through Giakoumakis to then switch the point of attack. We have dangerous wingers who have a lot of quality. We need to disrupt the opponents more side to side and isolate those wingers on the flank.”
On his initial thoughts on facing Columbus Crew in the opening playoff round
“Good opponent, as all of them are. We are a club that wants to fight for championships. When you compete for trophies you have to pretty much beat everyone. That’s the path. You cannot choose really who you want or don’t want. Orlando could have been difficult, Columbus will be difficult. New England or Philadelphia would also have been difficult tasks. It’s Columbus, we know them, they know us. It’s three games and the best team will advance.”
Atlanta United forward Giorgos Giakoumakis
On tonight’s performance and accomplishing the goal the team set out this week
“I think we did. Up until the moment of the red card, I think we destroyed them. We destroyed them up until that point. We created a lot more. We had control of the game. There was only one team on the field. Then we received the red card and the balance changed completely. We have to defend more. The important thing is that we reacted in a good way and we didn’t let them score again. It’s very important with a man down. Coming into the game, they were the champions (Supporters’ Shield), they are where they are because they were the best team this season, we have to accept that. So, coming into this stadium, playing against the first place team and to put together this kind of performance, we should be proud. We should take positive things from this game and apply them in the playoffs and compete at this same level.”
On what he remembers from facing Columbus this season and what the team needs to do to get a positive result
“It’s going to be tough without Thiago (Almada) in the first game. We have a plan in our game and Thiago is a key player in that plan. So, we have to adjust again and figure it out and follow the directions from the staff. We know that Columbus is a team that has almost the same characteristics, playing style like us. This is a good and bad thing at same time. I think we will be even more ready than the game we played (against Columbus) at home. We will go into it like a Final. From now on, there are only Finals. I believe in my team. I believe we can make it to the next round. But we will go step by step, game by game, and the first game is at Columbus.”
On how he feels about missing out on the Golden Boot despite missing several games this year
“For all the difficulties I had this season, with it also being my first season in the team, with so many ups and downs this year, I’m proud. I’m proud that I reached the amount of goals I did. Being that close, without even scoring one penalty, so at the end of the day I’m happy and proud. As I said a couple of days ago, I didn’t care about the Golden Boot anymore. The only thing I care about now is helping my team win. If it’s by making a slide tackle, in our box or anywhere, if that’s how I can help the team I will do that. It doesn’t have to do with goals anymore. Of course I want to score goals, but if I need to give an assist or give a pass and somebody else gets the assist and we win, I don’t care.”