“The goal at the Benz,” Atlanta United 2’s Nick Firmino said, smiling, when asked what moment was the highlight of his young career. “It took longer than expected to get my MLS debut so to have it like that was very special.”
This is what dreams are made of pic.twitter.com/DYG9wkWKmW— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) June 29, 2023
With the 2’s training pitch in the background on a muggy Georgia morning, Firmino sat down after practice to speak with Dirty South Soccer about his life and career - and why fans are clamoring to see him signed to the first team.
The young midfielder has been one of the Atlanta United organization’s most exciting success stories throughout 2023. He recently won the MLS Next Pro Midseason Player of the Year award on the back of a stellar season that has seen the Brazilian net twelve goals and four assists...so far. As of Sunday night, during Atlanta United 2’s match against Huntsville City FC where he scored a screamer of a free kick, he’s the newest single-season goal scoring record holder for the franchise. As if those accolades weren’t enough, he was also named MLS Next Pro’s June Player of the Month.
But the most satisfying goal was that one at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It came on June 21st in Atlanta United’s match against NYCFC shortly after Firmino was subbed on for his MLS debut in the 87th minute.
“They just said stay high, we need a goal,” he said about the coaching staff’s instructions to him as he prepared to enter the pitch in front of 42,557 Atlanta fans. Moments later, he made a late run into the box - a proclaimed strength of his - and headed home a cross by Brooks Lennon to pull the first team back to a draw.
But he’ll be the first to tell anyone, the work isn’t over.
“There are so many more games left. There’s a lot more work to be done, there are a lot more goals to be scored. If we get comfortable and if I get comfortable, the rest of the season won’t go the way we want it to.”
To fully understand Firmino’s breakout season and work ethic, though, it’s worth going way back to his upbringing in Boston, Massachusetts.
“I was born in Brazil, but grew up in Boston. Around 10, I started playing more serious club soccer. I played for a club called Blazers at the time - which I don’t even think is a club anymore,” he laughed. “From there, when I was 13, I was scouted by the New England Revolution. I went into their U-14 program, then I was there for five years until I was 17 and that’s when I signed for the first team. Played a couple of years there and after my second year I went to Union Omaha in USL League One, spent a year there, and after that came here and this is my second year here.”
Firmino was signed by Atlanta United 2 on March 2, 2022 after helping Union Omaha win the 2021 League One championship in their second season. The road to the current moment in his career is full of experience in a variety of leagues, interspersed with his familial upbringing.
What a feeling ! I love these guys ! All glory to God pic.twitter.com/BC0W4al9Rb— Nicolas Firmino (@Nick_F_28) November 21, 2021
“I’ve played in MLS now, MLS Next Pro, USL Championship, and League One. When you play in different leagues you learn to adapt to different play styles, different formations, different positions. And I feel like all that built me to be the player I am today. I feel like I’m pretty versatile, I can play any position in the midfield and I attribute that to the different clubs and different coaches I’ve played for.”
During his stints at those varying clubs, he racked up numerous awards and highlights, including having the distinction of scoring the first ever goal for New England Revolution 2.
“I moved here when I was three,” Firmino said about his younger years. “There is a big Brazilian community where I was from [in Boston]. I grew up around a lot of Brazilians and that’s a big part of me. It was my first language, I only spoke Portuguese at home.”
“My dad loved football, that was his dream to play professionally and unfortunately he couldn’t do it and, y’know, it’s nice to make him happy when he sees me chasing my dream and accomplishing things. My first academy team had nine Brazilians on it, so it’s a big influence.”
Ultimately, it’s the family connection - and his faith - that inspires him to keep pushing forward and bettering himself everyday.
“Tying it back to my family, making my family proud since I’ve had this dream. I’ve been lucky to have had parents that supported it since I can remember. I always told them I didn’t want to go to school and they were fine with that, but they said if you’re going to go after this then put everything you have into it. And that’s what I try to do and obviously my dream has always been to play in Europe, I just want to get to the highest level possible and that’s what I work towards everyday. Making my family proud. Everyone has a different goal and motivation for the game and that’s mine.”
When asked which team he dreamed of playing for in Europe, he smiled and shrugged, “Barcelona, definitely.”
Firmino’s style of play revolves around being a free-roaming number eight, a midfielder that loves to aggressively drive forward but who isn’t afraid to drop back and do the dirty work defensively. His shiftiness opens up space for the smorgasbord of young attacking talent Atlanta United is churning through their pipeline.
The 2’s head coach, Steve Cooke, has already played a huge role in Firmino’s confidence by guiding him but still giving him tons of freedom to express himself. Cooke recently had nothing but plaudits for Firmino when he won the player of the month award for June.
“We are all absolutely delighted for Nick, not only for his performances in June, but his outstanding contributions throughout the season so far. Nick has shown high quality, great leadership, and with the help of his teammates, is enjoying an excellent season so far.”
“That’s just my natural instinct, to go forward,” Firmino noted. “I can help the team create chances going forward, make runs into the box, and getting goals obviously, but I can also help in the build. I’m happy with my role this year, as a bit of a 10, or free 8. The confidence the coaching staff has given me has been amazing. I can roam, I can find pockets of space, I can come deep and get it, get in the box and score, get in behind and score, and Steve has helped me a lot.”
But the praise didn’t stop there. Atlanta United 2’s former head coach and now Huntsville City FC gaffer Jack Collison took a moment to give his own thoughts on Nick. The two sides met Sunday for the first time since Jack left Atlanta after the 2022 season, and it was a bittersweet reunion as Huntsville won 4-2.
“You can see his outstanding qualities. I think we saw glimpses of it last year in the USL, some really good individual performances and some wonderful goals. It just seems this year he’s found that consistency and gone into another level. Obviously a good preseason, in and around the first team,” Collison commented.
“He’s got the lot. Not just the goals he’s scored this year. His energy, his work rate, his quality on the ball. A lot of our team came off after the game and they’re saying ‘Look, that Nick Firmino is one hell of a player’ so hopefully he can keep on pushing. And hopefully he can have an effect, fingers crossed on the first team before the end of year because he’s some player.”
Firmino was recently named to Atlanta United coach Gonzalo Pineda’s League’s Cup roster, and though that doesn’t guarantee minutes, it opens up the possibility of the first team using another of their short-term call-ups on the talented 2’s star. It also wouldn’t count against the maximum of two matches in which he can actually participate for MLS play if he does see minutes.
During the interview, it was that moment that he realized there was, in fact, a possibility he could share the midfield against none other than Lionel Messi on Tuesday when Atlanta United faces off against Inter Miami.
“I don’t know what I would do, to be honest. It’s just so farfetched that he’s here, it hasn’t sunk in yet. But if I share the field with Messi that would be a dream come true, THAT would be the highlight of my career! I’ll take thirty seconds on the field with Messi, I’ll run straight over and grab his jersey, I don’t care,” he laughed.
Wouldn’t blame him one bit.