Ok, let’s get something straight. In the hullabaloo and pomp and circumstance building up to this Atlanta United vs Inter Miami match, Lionel Messi posted an Instagram Story showing a less-than-ideal version of an Argentine pizza from Miami. The video posted the night before the match, more or less proving he wasn’t making the trip to Atlanta.
Yes, I did actually call the pizza place to confirm that they served a pizza to Lionel Messi. The gentleman on the phone chuckled when I asked, and he said “Yeah man, the order came in as a delivery like an hour ago and our manager was the one who actually made the delivery to him and his family.”
Ok guys I called the pizza place, the manager delivered the pizza a while ago— Tyler Pilgrim (@ATLPilgrim) September 16, 2023
I’m not kidding
Fast forward to the next day, and though some folks were disappointed - including more than a few families who made long trips to see the GOAT - over 71000 showed up to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in what was another record breaking MLS crowd, and the largest for an Atlanta United match since 2019.
The absence of the Lionel Messi narrative once again allowed a more intrinsic and Atlanta-based story to shine through once more, though. The party began with a quick tribute to Josef Martinez and Tata Martino, with the stadium announcer welcoming them both, thanking them, and noting “Once a Five Stripe, always a Five Stripe.”
After the awesome Latin Heritage Month tifo display and an extended version of the “We Ready” remix blared through the speakers, the opening whistle blew and one of the most anticipated MLS matches of the season was off and running.
Atlanta played well in the opening 25 minutes, but a moment of “casual play” - as Gonzalo Pineda put it - saw Leo Campana bang in a goal around Miles Robinson to make it 1-0 to Miami.
The Atlanta United response from that moment onward was nothing short of inspiring. Within eight minutes, the Five Stripes netted three goals. One was a controversial header by Tristan Muyumba that bounced off the bar and just past the line as Drake Callender tried to slap it away. Quick side note on that: the assistant ref on the sideline was waving his flag furiously that it was a goal, and he was the only one in the right position (cameras included) to make the proper call. AR’s don’t wave the flag with that much vigor unless they know what they saw, which in his case, was the ball crossing the line fully.
Alright let's catch up...— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) September 16, 2023
Tristan Muyumba can do it allllll pic.twitter.com/KeSCAxCZO6
The second was an own goal, but it was Xande Silva (exercise the purchase option) who was the orchestrator of the entire build-up. He dribbled into the box and put in a lay-off cross towards Giakoumakis, but it was blocked - and deflected - into the net by Miami.
Kind of messy, but here's our second goal pic.twitter.com/EOYXWSyVaZ— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) September 16, 2023
And then Caleb Wiley and Brooks Lennon. Wow. Caleb took some space on the left wing to dribble into the box and made a similar cross to what Xande Silva had tried moments before, except this one found an on-running Brooks Lennon in the box. He trapped the ball and took the shot on the half-volley and drilled the back of the net to make it 3-1 before the half.
Wiley with the laser, Brooks with the GOLAZO pic.twitter.com/KXF9yIHklE— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) September 16, 2023
Halftime came and went with yet another visiting team returning to the pitch late. A few minutes into the second half, a handball was called on Luis Abram in the box, leading to a Leo Campana penalty to make 3-2.
Pause. What happened next may low-key turn out as one of the most crucial moments of the match. What seemed like a typical “give me the ball back so we can restart quickly” dust-up inside the goal turned into Brad Guzan getting cornered in the goal by Sergio Busquets and two other Miami players. The polar bear came to life and tucked the ball under his arm like a running back before he had to start stiff-arming players out of the way as the rest of the team came to help. Young Caleb Wiley went in on Sergio Busquets, and Giorgos Giakoumakis flew in from a thirty yard sprint to completely remove Leo Campana from the conversation.
The scuffle continued for a moment before play started, but it seemed to give Atlanta players an extra pep in their step. Two more scuffles happened within seconds of each other, one in which Brooks Lennon had to be pulled away after a heavy, yellow card-worthy tackle by Miami, and from that point on the match was all Atlanta.
They began hitting hard on counters and winning the ball back through pressure, and they opened Miami up like a can of whatever tomatoes were on that pizza Messi ate.
Saba Lobjanidze entered for Edwin Mosquera and immediately became a difference maker, once again. Xande Silva began the attack by working his way around Miami on the wing before finding Thiago Almada with acres of space in the midfield. He played it out wide to an on-running Saba, who played a low cross perfectly to the feet of Giakoumakis who made it 4-2.
The Five Stripes were full steam ahead by that point, and it was at this point Josef Martinez made his return to the pitch in front of fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He was greeted by roars from the crowd and the stadium announcer in the same boisterous manner he always was.
But the match wasn’t over, and Atlanta still had something to say. So they made it 5-2 because...why not? Saba once again found space on the right while drifting in towards midfield and played a feathery ball to Tyler Wolff near the top of the box, who placed the shot perfectly over Drake Callender to hit the underside of the crossbar and into the net.
What else can be said? Haters will say ‘Messi didn’t play.” Ok.
Messi doesn’t play defense.
Any team playing Miami with Messi is simply going to have to outscore them, and Atlanta is absolutely capable of doing that. This isn’t even kind of the same team that played Miami in July.
Xande Silva said it best: “We don’t care about Messi. We care about us.”
Atlanta United Head Coach Gonzalo Pineda:
On tonight’s performance and the mentality of the team:
“I could not be more proud of the team. The mentality of the team is something we talk about a lot during training sessions and message during film, so I cannot be more proud of my team. Tonight, they showed heart, passion, intelligence, good football, but also, they showed a good mentality. It is not easy to start the game, actually I think we started the game very well, and then in a casual play, we concede the first goal. Then, coming back, we started with some nervousness, but we came back with three goals in the first half. Even in the second half, we concede a PK, which for us, it is always a PK, but when [Inter Miami] kicked Xande [Silva], it is not a PK. For us, that is always a PK, so we concede the PK and then it’s 3-2, and that moment is another moment of pressure, but we were able to handle that and come back into the game with two more goals to close it out.”
On when he found out Lionel Messi would not be playing and if that altered any tactics:
“Honestly, I told the players, ‘Yes, it is [Lionel] Messi, Jordi Alba, [Facundo] Farias, [Sergio] Busquets, Tata Martino, the return of Josef [Martinez] to [Mercedes-Benz Stadium], there are a lot of things floating around in the atmosphere, but they all seem to be about Inter Miami, Messi, and all of that.’ So, I told them we have to turn that down and make it about us, about Atlanta United, and in that sense, I told them we have to play our game. Just because of Messi and Inter Miami, we will still play our way, and yes, we will make little adjustments on how we press. For example, we expected a backline of three, so that was kind of last minute after seeing their lineup and realizing they were resting [Sergii] Kryvtsov and not using a backline of five, so we know very well how to play against a backline of four, so in two minutes we changed some specifics, but overall, the message was still the same – press aggressively, try to be intentional in how we press, and be intentional when we regain the ball and have possession. I was very pleased with the execution of everything from the team.”
On the play and importance of Tristan Muyumba, Xande Silva, & Saba Lobjanidze:
“They have been very impactful, and I have been saying that for a couple games now. Kudos to the front office, the scouts, and Carlos [Bocanegra], they have been doing a great job. I have been witnessing this process, data, and filtering to put players in the best positions and scout various continents, while also looking at the personal aspects of the players, such as their culture, how they behave as human beings, how they are in the locker room, and we are asking questions to people we know, and then the final stage of picking the best player and making it happen requires a lot of process. Now, we are enjoying many good players, good human beings, good leaders, and I think that is a good combination for signings, and they have been impactful, so it is good to have all of that during the last part of the season.”
On the performance of Caleb Wiley:
“Caleb Wiley, wow. I would say everyone, and we were just talking briefly as a coaching staff, talking about how everyone had a tremendous game. Caleb Wiley and [Luis] Abram, in those one-on-one situations, Miles Robinson committing and dribbling almost 60 or 70 yards, and then the defensive aspects from Brooks Lennon, who had a tremendous game. Another record high for him individually, now with four goals and 10 assists, the best in his career, and I very happy for him. Brad [Guzan] made some really good saves, managed and controlled the tempo, played very composed, and was a good leader. As a team, I think we did great, and seven assists in one game is a big achievement for the franchise. Thiago [Almada] has 15 assists too, which is the most in one single season, so I am very happy with all of them, but Xande [Silva], [Giorgos Giakoumakis], Edwin Mosquera, Saba [Lobjanidze], Jay [Fortune] with the way he came into the game, Miguel Berry, Tristan [Muyumba], everyone had a tremendous game. When you start to go through those names, you start to remember all the good games they had tonight, so it would be very unfair for me to just highlight one individual, because it was a team effort. It was a very good performance by everyone individually, and collectively.”
Atlanta United forward Xande Silva:
On the team’s confidence:
“I always say we train very well every week you know, and we train everyday and to come and perform like that and that’s what we did today and we are going to keep going.”
On Lionel Messi not playing:
“We don’t care about Messi. We care about us, you know. We want to be in the playoffs and that’s what we are going to do.”
On the crowd and environment at Mercedes-Benz Stadium:
“Yeah, it was nice, and I hope the fans keep coming to watch us play because it gives us power and energy to perform like that.”
On the team responding to pressure moments in the match:
“I think when moments like that we need to keep calm, you know. Like calm and keep the head loose and that’s what we did. We look up to the fourth goal yeah the next goal, and that’s what we did yeah.”
On responding to Campana’s goal and the pushing and shoving:
“That all is good man, when players put some fun in the game. It gives us motivation to do better and yeah, that’s what we did.”
On looking to the playoffs:
“I think we got to think game by game, you know. We focus on the next game now. This one is past. And you got to work for that.”
Atlanta United FC goalkeeper Brad Guzan
On tonight’s performance:
“I think it was a good night for us in terms of results, overall performance, and to top it off, when you score five goals, there is not too much else you can say.”
On the response of the team after conceding the first goal:
“It was massive, a massive reaction. That was extremely impressive, and obviously the result was good, but I thought how we got to that result was even more important than the actual result itself. To concede first, then take the lead into halftime, then concede early in the second half by giving a penalty away, to just bounce back again, I think that was a big step forward for us tonight.”
On if adjustments were made after it was announced Lionel Messi would not be playing:
“Listen, regardless of what happened, as I said before the game, [Inter Miami] have some really talented players, and [Lionel Messi] did not play, but that is not our issue to deal with, or worry about. We had to worry about the 11 players they did put on the field, and the substitutions they made for those players, but they have signed some quality players during the summer transfer window, so their team looks a lot different than the beginning of the year, so we knew whoever was going to be in that starting 11, they were going to be a threat. We had to make sure we were up for the game either way.”
On the quality of the team after the summer transfer window:
“I talk about Inter Miami making some good signings in the summer window, but I think we also did exactly that. Whenever you are open in the transfer window with the ability to bring players in, you not only want to add quality, but you want to add good people, and I talked about that earlier in the week, but we have certainly done just that. Those guys [Tristan Muyumba, Xande Silva, and Saba Lobjanidze] showed their quality tonight.”
Atlanta United Thiago Almada:
On the game and the team’s form:
“Yes, I’m very happy with the victory and the form of the team. I think we had a great game.”
On this being the best form of his career and how MLS has helped him develop:
“Yes, I think we are in a good moment, and as a team as well. I think I made a good decision in coming to the league. I think I am growing a lot and I hope to continue this way.”
On if Messi not playing in this game made it easier for Atlanta:
“I don’t know if it made it easier because they have great players on their team as well. They have a great team and are playing very, but today showed we had the merit to win this game.”
On having the liberty to create and how the new additions have helped:
“Yes I think with the arrival of the reinforcements, the team has improved, and we are beginning to understand each other more each time and I hope we continue to have moments like these.”
On having a full stadium and the importance of fans heading into playoffs:
“Yes, the truth is having the support of our fans is very important for us. You can feel their energy on the pitch and I hope they continue to come out and support us.”
Atlanta United midfielder Saba Lobjanidze:
On his thoughts about Messi not playing
“Yeah, it was good for us. It’s for me the all-time best player, of course I would be happy to see him but for me the most important is the 3 points for our team tonight.”
On worrying about themselves if whether or not Messi plays by Gonzalo’s words
“You know whether or not Messi plays we have to play our game. It’s not so personal, you know, still we have to play the game with Messi or without Messi and we played, so it was good.”
On his thoughts of the stadium tonight with 70,000 people
“It’s really, really great. The stadium is amazing but the support here, every second you hear them, it’s really, really nice and I just want to tell them to continue like that. They are very important for us.”