Thiago Almada is the best footballer to ever play for Atlanta United
Despite its short history, Atlanta United fans are privileged to have witnessed some of the league’s most iconic and talented performers to wear the shirt and bring success to the club. Josef Martinez is a club and league icon, and Miguel Almiron established his own name on the global stage while brining success to the club in short order.
But neither of these players — as talented as they are, as successful as they are, and as beloved as they are here in Atlanta — can match Thiago Almada’s combination of physical, technical and mental attributes that makes him the absurd talent that he is. His free kick, which will win Goal of the Week (again), is a perfect representation of what that right foot can do. His buzzing around the field to constantly find dangerous and helpful positions for teammates shows his work rate, spatial awareness, and teamwork. His ability to pick the lock with through balls and spray passes to the flanks displays an uncanny vision and anticipation. He is the full package, and his MLS record of 4 goals and 4 assists in the first four games of a season is a manifestation of his well-rounded abilities. He’s a joy to watch play the game.
Atlanta United may or may not be the best team in MLS, but they are the most fun
I mean, let’s be honest they probably are the best in MLS right now, but even if you quibble that St. Louis deserves the top spot in the vaunted power rankings, or Philadelphia still earns it’s respect as top dogs based on last year’s evidence, Mercedes-Benz Stadium or wherever Atlanta United is playing in a given week is the place to be as a fan. This team is constantly producing Player of the Matchday performances, the best goals of the week, or both. And part of that is due to the superb play from Almada for all the reasons mentioned above, but it’s becoming clear now especially over that last two weeks that the team is putting the pieces together under Gonzalo Pineda.
We like a ruthless Atlanta United
Of course some of fans’ fondest memories of this team are of special nights winning big trophies, or the crucial performances to get them to the league’s biggest stages. But the underlying threat presented by Tata Martino’s great teams is that opponents knew they would not stop the horses from stampeding up and down the field — that you knew that if you conceded in the first 10 minutes, you were in serious trouble of being on the wrong end of a seriously ugly scoreline. The New England Revolution found out when Atlanta scored a touchdown on them at the Benz in 2017.
Saturday night was reminiscent of that era. In some respects, the play on the field was actually better than what we saw in 2017 and 2018 thanks to Almada’s mercurial talent that is unmatched from anyone on the Tata teams. But mostly, it was the way Atlanta players continued to pour forward and continued to push to get themselves on the scoresheet that reminds us of what we’ve loved about Atlanta United past and hope for in Atlanta United’s future.
The next challenge: maintain this form and create an identity
Watch Gonzalo Pineda’s postgame press conference and listen to not necessarily what he says, but how he says it:
This is exactly the kind of tenor Pineda needs to strike after such a great team display. It’s one of subtle pride, but it’s a stoic presence in a moment when every Atlanta United fan was in ecstasy around him. It’s an important tone to set for team that aspires to play the way they did Saturday on a consistent basis.
Last year, the team went through so many struggles with injuries, the few times they were able to come even close to this level of performance there was an evident sense of achievement and excitement emanating from Pineda. But ultimately, winning games here and there is hardly an achievement to truly be proud of, even if the cosmos do indeed seem to be aligned against you.
His media handling here reminds me of another coach in Atlanta — Braves manager Brian Snitker. Having covered him and the Braves in the past, I always felt Snit was more likely to be positive and outgoing when his team may have struggled, and was more ho-hum and boring in his presentation after wins — especially big wins. That’s a way to keep a team even keel over the course of a long season. Two weeks ago, we saw Gonzalo Pineda say his team played “close to perfection” after a game that ended in a disappointing 1-1 draw. And here, after a blowout win, he’s calmly talking about improving and “we strive for perfection.” That’s the right note to strike at a time when Atlanta needs to find consistency on the field to re-establish their dominant presence in the league.