Soccer is a weird game. The emotional roller coaster of matches that ultimately end in late stoppage time winners is jarring, and Atlanta United’s Sunday evening win over the Chicago Fire is a perfect example.
In the span of about 10 minutes, fans went from holding their breath in hopes the team could close out a win, to grumbling in frustration that another lead was given up at the death, to screaming in ecstasy as a Brooks Lennon corner found the thigh(?) of Juanjo Purata and fumblerooski’d its way into the back of the net. A win is a win, though, and Pineda summed it up well in his post-match press conference, “Today, we weren’t the better team, but we won, so it goes both ways.”
The Five Stripes came out swinging early on, and for the first 20 minutes were genuinely the better team. An early effort saw Andrew Gutman find the back of the net, but the build-up was deemed offside and the goal was quickly redacted. Moments later striker Giorgos Giakoumakis ultimately got his fifth goal in as many starts when Brooks Lennon found him near the penalty spot. Lennon just caught a ball on the end line after a monstrous run down the right wing, playing it gingerly back to Giakoumakis who took one touch to settle it before poking it over Chicago’s keeper.
GIAKOUMAKIS, COMES FROM GREECE— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) April 23, 2023
WHEN HE PLAYS, HE SCORES WITH EASE pic.twitter.com/cxnZPJecJe
Chicago then made some field adjustments to counter Atlanta’s ability to play out wide, and things went downhill. Passes were errant, touches were heavy, and the team simply looked irregular. Tactical jargon and analysis aside, Atlanta went into the half lucky to be up 1-0.
The second half didn’t summon better vibes. Goalkeeper Quentin Westberg was swapped in favor of Clement Diop in a switch that Pineda later attributed to some possible inflammation in Westberg’s knee. Giakoumakis was also subbed off with what appeared to be another tweak to his hamstring. Chicago took advantage and were the better team, and they kept Atlanta pinned in their own half for large stretches. The night quickly went from Atlanta trying to find the insurance goal to Atlanta holding on for dear life.
And in the 90th minute, the frustration reached a fever pitch as an errant backward pass by Franco Ibarra essentially turned into a through ball for Kacper Przybyłko. He went one on one with Clement Diop who made an incredible save, but the rebound was easily played back to Kacper who didn’t miss a second time. Props to Diop, though, who entered at a weird time for a goalkeeper and handled business in outstanding fashion.
It seemed Atlanta would be settling for yet another irritating draw, but the final couple of minutes saw an incredible showing of grit and resiliency to attack and put pressure on Chicago’s backline. It seemed to take the Fire by surprise, and was surely urged on by the environment in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but a late corner found the head of Purata who placed it strikingly on frame - and right at the goalkeeper.
But it would be the second opportunity in the dying moments that became the saving grace for the Five Stripes. Another Brooks Lennon corner was whipped in and took a deflection off a Chicago player at the near post. It struck Purata before angling off the back of Maren Haile-Selassie and into the net, and the celebrations began.
With the U.S. Open Cup match against Memphis 901 only 72 hours away, there won’t be much time to focus on what went wrong in this match before focusing on the next. But that may be for the best, because sometimes it’s best to refrain from overanalyzing a result and just own up to the fact that the team didn’t play well. They know they can do much better, and perhaps this is the way of the soccer gods repaying some of the points Atlanta should’ve won over the past calendar year in games where they genuinely were the better squad?
Either way, take a look at what everyone had to say between the post-match press conference and the locker room, and be sure to give us your thoughts and comments below!
Atlanta United Head Coach Gonzalo Pineda
On injuries to Giorgos Giakoumakis & Quentin Westberg:
“Giorgos felt his hamstring again, so we have to assess him in the next few days, do some scans, and we will see the magnitude of that. We already had in our plans to start modifying around the 60th minute, but it happened before that, so we will have to assess that one. Quentin [Westberg], I think he landed awkwardly in the warmup, or something like that, and then throughout the first half he started to feel more pressure in the knee, so we will have to do the same, analyze the injury and the magnitude, and we will make decisions as needed.”
On his emotions throughout the match:
“Frustration. Frustration because I felt that we did not have our best game, or even we had one of the worst games I have seen. Especially on the ball, we never had rhythm on the ball, we never could really connect good sequences of passes into possession. There were moments in the first half, but we certainly lost the control for the big majority of the game, so I was frustrated with that. Out of precaution, I had to modify [Giakoumakis] and Thiago [Almada], so I felt that that didn’t help with our rhythm, but after that, I am very happy with the mentality of the team. The players understood that we were not having our best night, but they were able to absorb pressure and be under pressure by Chicago [Fire], who did a great job of putting good balls and services inside the box and in dangerous areas, but we were defending really well. Outside of the goal, which I think was an individual mistake that can happen to anyone, it was a silly mistake that obviously hurt us, but the team understood and never quit, and that is a massive positive to me, that we have a team full of warriors and people that understand their roles and are willing to do everything for the team. So, that is positive, and we need to correct the soccer side for sure, but today, that is all I can say.”
On the play of Clement Diop:
“Obviously, very positive. It is not easy for a goalkeeper to come into a game at that moment, with that amount of pressure and do what [Clement Diop] did. He did a great job, so I am very happy with his performance, and as always, the message to the players is that this is about everyone. Everyone can impact the game in any moment, and you have to be ready for the opportunity. Clement [Diop] is one who trains very hard every day and today he was able to reap that reward.”
On the play style of the Chicago Fire:
“I have to say both sides of the story. One, Chicago [Fire] did a good job at being compact, understanding the timing of the pressure, and I don’t want to take any credit away from Chicago, because, and I told them this, they were the better team today on the field. They were better than us, but once I said that I think they were better, it is because we made mistakes that we normally don’t do. It is almost like we started to give the ball away very easily and that helped them to be more controlling in certain moments of the game, so not taking away credit from Chicago again, because they did a great job, had a very good gameplan, and they were able to put us under pressure, but I felt it was more of us making a lot of mistakes in the buildup and the distribution and we were not sharp on the ball. We need to correct that, but I felt that the gameplan, when we started to move them around and occupy the spaces that we talked about, we were more dangerous in attack, but we didn’t do very often.”
On Atlanta United FC being undefeated at home:
“Don’t jinx it. Don’t jinx it, please. No, I don’t believe in that, but I am happy for it, and I think it is also a tendency that it is really hard for any team in this league to win away. It is really, really hard, and if you look at the stats, more often than not, the home team has an advantage. I am happy that we have that tendency as well, and we have only dropped two points [at home] against Toronto FC, and even that one I felt that we should have won. I felt that we were the better team that day. Today, we weren’t the better team, but we won, so it goes both ways, but I feel that it relies a lot on the mentality of the team. We message a lot on the thought process that we think when [opponents] come to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they have to be prepared for a battle, prepared for a stadium where the fans are very loud and bring energy to the field, and the players bring the energy back to the fans, and that is a connection we always talk about. That has to be the Mercedes-Benz Stadium throughout the year, so we are happy that we are here.”
Atlanta United goalkeeper Clement Diop
On how he thinks he performed
“Ask the coach about it. I am not here to judge my performances, but I am trying to do my best. If I can help the best team, you know, like I didn’t feel stressed or rushed on the field and that was about it.”
On if there is any pressure since he is the only healthy goalkeeper
“I mean at that point there is pressure to not get injured because I feel like there is a spell on this club (joking). It feels like every goalkeeper is getting injured this year. I feel like I am going to try to stay healthy at least, you know. That’s the most important right now.”
On him training with the players and if he believes if this assists him
“I am trying to stay on as much as I can with those guys. When we train between goal keepers, we see goalkeeper shots. No disrespect to nobody, but Thiago is not going to shoot like Liam (Curran, goalkeeper coach), you know. So, I am trying to see as much as possible because I feel like if I can save it during practice, I have a better chance to save it during a game. That’s about it for me.”
On how his health habits will change now that he is the remaining goalkeeper
“I mean not much is going to change. Like I have said, I like to stay at the end of practice and take shots with the guys. Not having fun but push them, you know, a little bit. I am going to try to keep doing that. Try to stay healthy. Try to perform for the team.”
Atlanta United midfielder Derrick Etienne Jr.
On what Chicago was doing that made them a difficult competitor
“Well we did some things throughout the week that we felt were going to put us in good positions, but they did a very good job and came with a different game plan than what we came to the game with. I think you saw just quality with the ball. Thiago played out to Brooks and he had one before that and it wasn’t worth it but then he came off again so we scored. As a team we have to do a better job of just seeing that and realizing they wanted us to play the outside backs and trap us there and then try to create turnovers and quick little passes playing into Kai and off of him. It shows signs of a good team to be able to not play necessarily well but be able to come back with 3 points.”
On if pressure on defense was the issue
“I think there’s a lot of things. We were a bit sloppy at times. They were trapping and then sometimes the run would be too early or too late, the pass might be too hard. It’s a lot of things, but it just wasn’t our best today. I don’t want to take anything away from them because they did some good things but just today we were not at our best.”
On Clement Diop’s performance as a goalkeeper
“He’s a very good goalkeeper. I knew when he got on the field that, because I do shoot on him daily. He stays after training and helps us attackers. Guess how good his present in shot stopping is, you saw today on the breakaway. I really wish we were able to clean that up so he could get a clean sheet because I think he deserves it with the work he puts in after practice every single day. He’s very athletic and then he brings a lot of confidence to the ball that you saw. He feels real comfortable with people running at him and pressing him. He has the patience, he has the composure and he has the skill to be able to find a good pass and I think you saw that today so I’m very happy he was able to get his debut. I’m a little upset that we couldn’t give him a clean sheet.”
On what it says about the team after bouncing back from last week
“I think that we had chances throughout the game to put them to bed. They also had chances as well. I think it shows that we are not a team that’s going to give up, we’re not going to die and we definitely don’t want to drop points at home. That’s something that needs to be cemented in the way we are and make the bend of fortress because it is a very difficult place to play. We were very disappointed in the fact that with 30 seconds left we gave up 3 points there, so you can just see the resilience in the group to be able to fight back. I think it just shows that we are going to be able to create chances throughout the whole game and being sharper and finishing out those chances and making sure that we are better in both halves.”
Atlanta United defender Juanjo Purata
On the game-winning goal
“Yeah, I just followed the ball. The ball hits me, I don’t know where. But just happy for the three points.”
On celebrating the goal
“Yeah, all the boys told me. They were laughing about that. But I don’t care as long as the team wins. It’s a last-minute goal so I was so happy for the team even if we didn’t play well. We all know that. But the only important thing is we never stopped fighting and won three points.”
On his emotions when Chicago tied the game
“Frustration. We were fighting all game and conceding a goal again in the last minutes is always hard, it’s always tough, but we keep pushing after that. And as I said, the only thing that matters is the three points.”
On what was going through his head when Clement Diop came in the game
“We all know that Clement is a really good goalkeeper. He showed that. He has our confidence. He showed the people that he’s ready and we are a complete team. We have two goalkeepers injured but there is a third one and he’s very good.”
On the team dropping back to defend near the end of the match and why that happened
“I think the game also demands that you fall back. They started to attack more, play many long balls, put more men up front and that made us have to defend more. The changes were necessary, and the team had to defend itself but there is an error that causes the goal against us but we responded and never stopped fighting and that’s the result today.”