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Derrick Etienne: My Jaw Dropped

‘Bout 43000 others, too. What a night in Atlanta for the Five Stripes.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Where do we start?

Atlanta United put on a show Saturday night against the Portland Timbers and do you ever wonder how unfortunate it is to have a name that people literally scream when a tree is falling?

Anyway, the Five Stripes played the role of lumberjack as they slotted home five, count ‘em, five goals against Portland. A five goal match hasn’t been accomplished by an Atlanta United squad since 2019, and if we’re being honest this one easily could’ve ended with another two or three for the good guys.

5-1 was the final score, and if you don’t see the progression and proof of concept of Gonzalo Pineda’s ideas coming to fruition I genuinely don’t know what to tell you. Patience is a hard thing to grasp in soccer, and growing pains are so real when the weight of the world is on your shoulders and expectations are astronomical because the club settles for nothing less than prestige. Last year was tough...definitely. But the blocks are falling into place and that “final piece” that we felt was just missing last season seems to have found its rightful spot to make the Five Stripes a force to be reckoned with once again. The team is vibing, the chemistry is building, the goals are mounting, and the positivity is flowing. Yes, it’s a long season, but the team is off flying with its best-ever league start, and doing it with swag.

So again, where do we start? It’s easy to recap the match and forget that there was an early scare when Portland netted a goal within three minutes, only to have it called back after a VAR check caught a Portland player offside and blocking Brad Guzan’s vision.

Apparently that early punch in the gut pissed off motivated the entire city of Atlanta and things just...sorta went downhill for the fallen trees from there. The Five Stripes started to settle in with a rhythm - which sounded vaguely like a chainsaw - and proceeded to hit on the counter with a vengeance. The first goal came off a Portland corner; the clearance eventually found Thiago Almada who juggled the ball with what felt like half of Portland before finally controlling it. He then played it forward to Caleb Wiley who, by the way, has clearly unlocked a new level. The young homegrown smoothly dropped it past the keeper to make it 1-0.

The pressure didn’t stop there. Giorgos Giakoumakis found himself on the end of multiple opportunities where he was just offside - four times in the first half - and it always felt like his goal was imminent.

But it was Thiago Almada from 32 yards out hahahahahaha who - in the words of Shawty Lo - “came through with something real foolish.” Who expected him to go for goal from downtown Atlanta?

Responding to a Thiago Almada free kick banger

And that was just the dying seconds of the first half. The second half started and Atlanta United kept their foot on the gas pedal, with Giakoumakis inching ever closer to that opening goal. He even had one hit the back of the net that was, you guessed it, called offside.

But he was never to be kept from destiny. Two beautiful switches back and forth across the pitch, the last by Luiz Araujo over to Caleb Wiley, caught the Portland backline out of sorts. Wiley then played a gorgeous cross to an on running Giorgos Giakoumakis who buried the header for his first goal in his first MLS start.

If things weren’t already sideways enough for the Timbers, Almada casually played Araujo a dime over the middle of the pitch in the 74th minute. The Brazilian controlled the ball and fired his favorite left-footed cannon back across the face of goal, under the keeper’s arm, and into the net to make it 4-0.

After a slew of substitutions, Portland caught Atlanta on a moment where it felt like the various changes were trying to settle into the match. The Timbers made it 4-1 to put an end to the clean sheet, and you can check out Gonzalo Pineda’s comments on that below, but that didn’t deter the Five Stripes from tallying another one to place their total goals scored in 2023 at 11. It was all thanks to Thiago Almada who received a ball in the box from Derrick Etienne and put a Timber’s defender to bed before firing home the final goal of the match.

With that, Almada became the first MLS player in history to have four goals and four assists in the first four matches of the season. Caleb Wiley also became the second youngest player in MLS history to have back to back games with a goal and assist.

Below are a slew of quotes by a variety of Atlanta players and Gonzalo Pineda. It was a night to celebrate but also a night to focus up and keep progressing forward. The squad seems very grounded despite the early success, and they’ll be up for a huge test next week against Columbus as international duty calls for a handful of starters.

Be sure to comment on your thoughts below, and give our post-match show a listen on Twitter (much more cheerful this season, so far).

Atlanta United Head Coach Gonzalo Pineda:

On the effect of a team practicing together for weeks without injuries after scoring 5 goals

“It can be. Number one it’s always a team effort, the players putting everything together in every training session, and working together on the field. Today I’m very proud of everyone’s hard work and the reward is those moments of brilliance in the final third. Everything starts with good defending, being for each other, fighting, competing, and chasing, all of those little details that I feel are very important. Yes, obviously continuity and having a full roster helps for that development.”

On how Thiago Almada can get better than he is now

“We are always critical with ourselves and we will find something for sure. I know it’s tough to see because he does many, many good things, but one thing I can share with you is before the game we were talking about striving for perfection. If we are striving for perfection, we need to do better in certain situations we can be more clinical at the final third at times. We can maintain the clean sheet even though we did a great job at limiting good chances for Portland. We should have gotten the clean sheet tonight which makes me a little bit upset, but at the same time, it will keep us grounded because we know there are things to improve. So not just Thiago but everyone, we will find things to work on in the week and do better.”

On what type of player Thiago turned to after the World Cup

“Well, a little bit of everything you described. I can imagine at his age being champion of the world and being in the same locker room with the best player in the world. It helps in your development for sure but it can also be a distraction at his age if he’s not mature enough that can be ‘I’m done. I can retire now and I did everything in my career’. That’s not the reaction I saw from Thiago since the first day back. He was not taking liberties at all. He was here on time for the first day back. He’s been here on time for everything. He gets out of the building very late because he does treatment. He goes to the gym properly, I see all those little details that tell me that Thiago still has a big ceiling ahead of him and he’s striving for that. I’m very happy with that attitude. We will continue sending the message of let’s go in that direction and that path.”

On how he would describe the goal from Thiago tactically with what the team works on

“Well we work in patterns and we work in ways to unbalance the opponent, whether it’s in the midfield and the final third, but that’s the fluidity that I dream with a team that understands the principles of play and then they apply in any situation. So at times, I’m listening a lot because of the last three points we got outside of home that possession is not important. Today we had 60% and we won 5-1. So, possession matters when we do good with the ball, right? Today I think we did that. We were always looking for switches. We were always breaking lines, looking to attack the premise zones. We need to work on the timing of those runs but we did many good things.

Atlanta United FC defender Brooks Lennon

On the team scoring five goals:

“It feels great. It is always good to score, and to score five goals at home and make [Mercedes-Benz Stadium] a fortress. I think the backline is disappointed in the goal that we conceded, and we have already looked it over as a team, but overall, it was a great performance tonight and we are happy with the win.”

On Thiago Almada’s free kick goal to end the first half:

“I think everyone in the stadium had the same reaction, just wowed at the beauty of the free kick and I am really happy for him.”

On the mindset of Thiago Almada:

“He is a very humble kid even though he has had a lot of success in his career so far, but he has been very humble, and I think that is a trait that will make him very successful in the future.”

On what has helped the team get off to such a fast start:

“I think our backline is really gelling, and the entire team is working really hard defensively, from the front line all the way to the goalkeeper in Brad [Guzan]. We are gelling as a team on and off the field, and we have really good chemistry in the locker room, and I think we are showing that on the pitch.”

Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada

Have you ever hit a free kick better than that?

“I don’t think so.”

On if he knew when he kicked the free kick that it was going in

“No, but I was convinced that I could take it well because I was practicing in the previous days and doing well, so I had confidence.”

On why he went to post that he did on the free kick

“Because yesterday I was training with Clement (Diop), and I was trying to look at the other post and when I went to take it, change posts. I don’t know if their goalkeeper was looking at my eyes. I think he took a step and didn’t get there. I was trying to fool the goalkeeper.”

On his arrival to the club after the World Cup, what the last few months have been like and how he’d describe the moment he’s in

“Well, I tried to absorb everything that I could, to learn, watch the older players. Then, try to show it on the field. The World Cup also gave me a lot of confidence and I think I’m in a good moment and I hope to continue like that.”

On the team having less injuries this year and starting to play well, what’s the potential for this team?

“Well, we’re very happy that the team is complete. We’re only missing Ozzie and maybe one more, we hope they recover. But I think the ones who are back returned 100 percent and you’re seeing that on the field. Then, also with the arrival of the two No. 9’s, they’re helping us and we have to stay on this path.”

Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan

On last season compares to this season:

“Like I said, and I have said it to you guys before, I think it’s the ability of players to understand what is being asked of them on the field. To understand how we want to play as a group, but within that system allowing obviously talented individuals to express themselves and do what they do. You know a bit of freedom but understanding the rules and responsibilities that everyone has on the field. So that part has been good. It is still the early days, but obviously we are in a good spot. We need to continue to push the bar and try to get better week after week.”

On why it has been the best

“Again, it is just an understanding what the manager and the coaching staff is asking of the group and the ability to be comfortable on the field and within the system. And what each person’s role is on the field. I have said to you guys before sometimes that happens quickly; sometimes it takes a while. I think with the year we had last year, getting guys back on the field, but then adding talented players to our group. I think you are starting to see the pieces fit together. There is a lot of soccer to be played. Although this feels good, we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. It is still March. We need to make sure to keep our head down, stay focused, and continue to push the bar.”

Atlanta United forward Derrick Etienne Jr.:

On how he is doing physically:

“I’m feeling good. The team is doing very well so I mean I don’t want to mess with the momentum of that. I think Caleb is doing a very good job these last two games, coming into his own. You can definitely see the confidence that is oozing out of him with his displays. And then you have guys like Luiz, Thiago, and GG making plays is always good, so to be able to continue to keep getting minutes is something I’m looking forward to hopefully when things work out we see some stuff.”

On giving Caleb advice before games

“I just tell him to be confident and that he is a good player and that he makes really good runs off the ball. I told him, yeah you’re young, but you’re put in this position because you’re a good player. Be more confident and demand the ball and when you get those chances, be confident and if you get a guy 1v1, take him, if you get a shot, take it. There’s stuff that when I was young that guys imparted into me that I felt he needed a little bit.”

On seeing the impressive free kick goals:

“My jaw dropped. I sat here and thought, “dang this guy is different!” I don’t know what is in the water or what was going on out there but it was amazing to see. It’s funny, me and Miguel were sitting on the bench next to each other and I was like, “Yo it’s crazy that Lucas is dangerous from out here, let’s see what he does”, then he goes out and bangs it. Those guys are unstoppable and lethal on set pieces so it adds another element to our game that with the tricky guys that we have, the quality that we have in the final third that we can score from any type of chances.