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“Of course I feel pressure”: Giorgos Giakoumakis embraces the weight of his role at Atlanta United

Atlanta’s new No. 9 was introduced to the media on Friday. And with Josef Martinez now at Inter Miami, the Five Stripes’ newest DP is well aware of the expectations that lie ahead.

Kyle Hess/Atlanta United

MARIETTA — Atlanta United’s newest designated player met the media for the first time on Friday, fully aware of the expectations that will be placed on him as he leads the Five Stripes’ attack. Sure, Giorgos Giakoumakis — and Atlanta fans, for that matter — understand that Josef Martinez will be irreplaceable.

Judging by his comments, though, the Greek international is ready to face his newest challenge head-on.

“Of course I feel pressure, and I’m happy with the pressure. If I [wasn’t], I wouldn’t have [much] motivation,” he said at a press conference at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground. “I like pressure and I work under pressure all the time.”

Quite the statement from the new man wearing the No. 7 kit for Atlanta in its 7th season, knowing the player who wore it before him will go down as both a club and MLS legend. It was the same number he wore at Celtic and the same worn by Bhoys great Henrik Larsson, who scored 175 times across 221 appearances with the club.

“I respect it, but at the same time, I wanted that pressure. I wanted that motivation, and I think I did well,” he said.

It’s been quite a journey for the 28-year-old Giakoumakis, who made his professional debut in 2012 with now-defunct top-flight club Plantanias in his homeland. He broke through in 2016-17 with 12 goals in 30 appearances after having found the net just 5 times in 48 previous outings, including a loan spell with 2nd-division Episkopi in 2013-14.

That led to a move to AEK in 2017 where things didn’t quite add up, even after being loaned out twice. Things changed in 2020 when he was transferred to VVV-Venlo in the Eredivisie and claimed the league’s Golden Boot with 26 goals, about the only thing that went right for Venlo that season as it dropped to the Eerste Divisie. Giakoumakis, meanwhile, would go to Celtic, where he totaled 26 goals in 57 appearances and was part of the double-winning side in 2021-22 that secured passage to the UEFA Champions League.

Fast forward to Friday, and to a new chapter in his journey.

“I think my passion suits [the U.S.] a lot,” he said. “I have a lot of passion, I love celebrating with fans...I’m hungry for goals, and I think that’s my fuel.”

One person that he was able to lean on to learn more about MLS was Alistair Johnson, who spent 3 years with Nashville SC and CF Montréal before a transfer to Celtic in January. Although the 2 players were teammates only briefly, the Canadian international provided valuable advice for Giakoumakis.

“He knew all the offers I had and (when) Atlanta came, he said ‘Don’t think anything else. Just go. You’re going to enjoy it, you’re going to smash it, and this is the best thing for you’,” he recounted.

Kyle Hess/Atlanta United

Giakoumakis’s move to the U.S. came amidst a heavy challenge from Urawa Red Diamonds in the J1 League. The Mitsubishi-backed side initially appeared to have the edge in securing his services after it was reported that Atlanta were keen to signing him to a loan deal rather than an outright purchase.

Ultimately, Atlanta won out, having weathered what Carlos Bocanegra described as the “twists and turns” of the transfer process.

“The whole time we were looking at him, we had him in mind that he would be a designated player for the club, whether it was a loan with an option to buy...or a straight buy to be a DP,” Atlanta United’s vice president and technical director said. “That didn’t really change. It’s just how we were able to maneuver our salary cap and figure out what made the most sense.”

Whether or not Giokoumakis debuts during Atlanta’s season opener on Feb. 25 against the San Jose Earthquakes — “that’s the hope” pending visa approval, said Bocanegra — the microscope will be firmly fixed on him considering the impact that Martinez had before his departure for Inter Miami.

“I don’t want to put those expectations on Giorgos. He’s going to come in here and write his own history,” Bocanegra said, while pointing to the potential for Giakoumakis to also create chances for players like Thiago Almada, Luiz Araujo, and free agent signing Derrick Etienne. “Obviously, the expectation is for him to score goals. I think he realizes that as well, but he’s going to do it in his own way.”

Giakoumakis recognized that while he’s stepping into the place of a “great player” in Martinez, he’s confident as he looks to better his craft.

“I feel nice, because I feel I have to improve every day, more and more, and keep scoring goals, and (prove the club) right for their decision,” he said.

What will help him get settled in and on the road to feeling at home with his new team?

“Scoring in the first game,” he said with a small smile. “That would be the best feeling, scoring and winning.”

Needless to say, Atlanta fans will be hoping for plenty of both in 2023 and beyond.