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Atlanta United Rolls Out Mix of First Team, 2’s, and Academy in 2-1 Win over Birmingham

“Norwegians are awesome” - Aiden McFadden on Stian Gregersen

Alex Slitz/Atlanta United

That’s one win in the books, which clearly means Atlanta United is winning MLS Cup since they’re already close to the first winning streak of the season.

The Five Stripes took to the pitch Saturday for the first action of the 2024 preseason, rolling out 27 different players over the course of the 90 minutes. The weather cooperated for about 34 of the day, barring the absolute monsoon that struck around the 30th minute when the poor souls of the second group entered the pitch, and fans got to see the very raw beginnings of Gonzalo Pineda’s ideas for the year.

The first thirty minutes of the match saw two goals, one by Giorgos Giakoumakis and one by Nick Firmino, with a handful of other decent chances as Atlanta settled into their mid-block. Interestingly, Birmingham’s initial formation - which Pineda spoke about in the post-match press conference - was more of a midfield box shape in a 5-2-2-1 from which Atlanta had to make some minor but important adjustments.

Those adjustments came around the 15th minute to Atlanta’s midfield players and full backs, creating more space and passing lanes and ultimately giving the team the chance to push more directly through midfield. The reward was the initial Giakoumakis goal which stemmed from a cross by Ronald Hernandez and slightly flicked on (via his head) by Derrick Williams in the 20th minute.

Just two minutes later the second came, as Xande Silva found space down the left side before playing the ball forward to Nick Firmino. The young Brazilian, who entered his first team contract on January 1st, took his defender on 1v1 and slipped a cheeky shot back past the keeper’s near post to make it 2-0.

While Nick Firmino as the 10 was absolutely a highlight of the first group of players, the entirety of the initial group was solid. Stian “Norwegians are Awesome” Gregersen, Aiden McFadden, and Luke Brennan all handled the right side very well, barring the occasional bit of rust. For Gregersen’s part, it was only his second day of participation with the team as he had just received his visa on Thursday. Tristan Muyumba was buzzing all over midfield, and draft pick Javier Armas was a breath of fresh air at the defensive midfield position. Derrick Williams had a solid showing, as did Xande Silva and - of course - Giakoumakis.

The second group entered and battled both a fully warm Legion and the elements as the proverbial bottom fell out, and though they had a couple of decent looks at goal, they had some confusing defensive moments. This led to Birmingham’s loan goal of the game just before half time, as forward Enzo Martinez took a shot that deflected off Luis Abram’s foot. The deflection left Josh Cohen stretching as far as he possibly could - it was legitimately a valiant effort - but there was nothing he could do.

After the half, the guys settled in a bit more, with Brooks Lennon and Saba Lobjanidze looking especially sharp down the right. Striker Jamal Thiare had some opportunities, while Derrick Etienne was placed in new territory as the number 10 for the group. Noah Cobb defended exceptionally well and once again looked mature beyond his age. For those curious, Cohen looked solid, and his distribution was precise.

And then it was the kid’s turn...and they did not disappoint.

The Academy’s Cooper Sanchez played his heart out, as did Rocket Ritarita, Efrain Morales, and Ashton Gordon. While the play was clearly less crisp - which is to be expected - the young ones showed some serious heart and attitude. It was this final thirty minutes that became the most physical, but they didn’t simply hold on for dear life to their 2-1 scoreline, they created some opportunities and pushed Birmingham Legion.

It wasn’t without a few scares, especially one where Quentin Westberg held onto the ball for a moment too long, lost it, and the subsequent shot on an empty net hit the outside of the left post for a goal kick. But the overall fight and show of heart was great to see from what was essentially 10 outfield kids playing against adults.

Overall, there is plenty to like from Saturday’s friendly. It’s also worth remembering that it was just that, a preseason scrimmage. But Gonzalo Pineda noted after the game that the staff is putting a bit more emphasis on results in these preseason matches, because he wants the winning mentality to be there regardless of what label the game may have.

Pineda said there were some things he liked about the match, but that they still have plenty of work to get techniques correct on aspects like the mid-block they’re implementing. Progression is the name of the game in preseason, so keep an eye on how the team further instills their mentality over the next month.

Next up is Memphis 901 over in Athens, which will certainly be a genuine test before the Five Stripes head to Florida.