New York City Football Club take on Atlanta United next up.
Hi Tyler, thanks for speaking with us. How long have you been covering Atlanta United?
First off, thanks for this! I've been covering the club from an official press perspective (training ground, interviews, match coverage, and news) with Dirty South Soccer and also now our Scarves and Spikes podcast since 2021, but I've been closely following the team since the moment they were announced and founded as an MLS expansion team back in 2014. At the time, Atlanta's soccer potential was only mildly tapped, and we were all fortunate enough to watch it blossom into what it has become today.
What has been your highlight in that time?
This is always a tough question, and the 2018 MLS Cup is the easy answer, but watching the team lift both the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup in 2019 was special because it showed they could carry the momentum from the previous season forward despite a coaching change and losing a player like Miguel Almiron to the Premier League. The Open Cup win was especially exciting because of the vast history of the tournament, and the match itself had plenty of drama and edge-of-seat moments. The final that year was against Minnesota United, which was the other team that entered the league in 2017 alongside Atlanta, so the win also gave an extra bit of bragging rights.
But in the spirit of sharing something more recent, I also have to give honorable mention to Thiago Almada's opening day game-winner this season; anytime Mercedes-Benz Stadium is open to 65,000+ fans is a spectacle, but watching and hearing that place erupt after Almada buried that free kick seconds before the final whistle to complete a comeback win was pure elation.
What were your thoughts on the 2022 season?
2022 was tough for Atlanta United for a variety of reasons. The ideas head coach Gonzalo Pineda wanted to implement were solid, but some variety of bad luck always seemed to stand in the way of fulfilling his concepts. And the bad luck came in many forms, mostly injuries, but even when the team was playing fun, attacking soccer, holding possession, and creating multiple chances per match, they just couldn't catch a break. Couple that with the disagreements in the locker room involving Josef Martinez, and then-president Darren Eales leaving for Newcastle, and the club just couldn't find a steady footing to snag the extra few points needed to make the playoffs.
The injury crisis was historical, too. Multiple Achilles ruptures, ACL tears, hamstring pulls, and a variety of other issues meant the starting XI had no consistency all season long. To put the luck and injury conversation into perspective, right back Brooks Lennon fell victim to MCL sprain in June of 2022 by accidentally slipping on the rubber surface that surrounds BMO Field in Toronto during warm-ups. Keeper Brad Guzan ruptured his Achilles tendon after jumping and simply landing on the turf at Mercedes-Benz Stadium while urging his team forward, USMNT defender Miles Robinson tore his Achilles during an aerial duel, and winger Luiz Araujo pulled his hamstring on a goal-scoring run 20 minutes into the season. And those are only a fraction of the total injuries sustained. The end result was certainly disappointing, but it marked the perfect moment for the team to rest, reset, and allow new president Garth Lagerway to come in from Seattle and start pulling the strings in the front office.
What are your hopes for the 2023 season?
The easy answer is "find a way back into the Concacaf Champions League" because Atlanta's aspirations include being a consistent competitor in this region and hemisphere, but we all know that's easier said than done. Regardless, the team has to make a run in the playoffs this season, and they need to show well in the Open Cup and Leagues Cup. Top 5 in the Eastern Conference was my preseason prediction, and they should at least hit the semifinals in the Open Cup while making it out of the group in Leagues Cup. Simply making the playoffs would likely not be considered a great success, especially considering the new format; they need to truly compete. Any silverware would be phenomenal, but after the past three seasons I think the fans are ready for a "consistently solid" team as opposed to one that tries to recapture exactly what they did in 2018.
My other hope for 2023 is that the club finds a suitable replacement for wonderkid Thiago Almada when he's eventually transferred, because it's only a matter of time before he makes a jump to Europe.
What do you think will be the deciding factor in Saturday's game?
If I only pick one deciding factor in this match it'll be how involved Thiago Almada can drive the attack. That may not be a super original hot take, but when Thiago Almada plays well, Atlanta United follows suit. He's a player who is unfazed playing in very tight spaces, and the team has already been heavily preparing for New York's smaller pitch. In fact, one could argue that the closed spaces are where Almada thrives because he's so shifty and confident on the ball. He'll be vital in opening up room for guys like Derrick Etienne and Luiz Araujo to drive forward on the wings, and for striker Giorgos Giakoumakis to operate in front of goal. Also, look for Atlanta to try and control the game through possession. They're very well aware of what can happen at Yankee Stadium when NYCFC keeps the ball, so if Atlanta can find success winning the ball back and causing turnovers through pressure they'll be able to quickly spray the ball to one of those talented attacking players.
And for any fans that might be in Atlanta for the game are there any spots you'd suggest they check out?
Absolutely! If I was in charge of choosing one place in Atlanta to visit to enjoy the game and some great food, it would be one of the Fado Irish Pub locations (either midtown Atlanta or Buckhead). They're a soccer-oriented, proper Irish pub, so on any given day they're showing Atlanta United matches, plus games in the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, and Serie A, plus U.S. National Team fixtures. A fan in Atlanta on Saturday could spend an entire day watching the top leagues overseas before settling in for the Atlanta United vs NYCFC match in the evening, and be surrounded by plenty of other soccer fans doing the exact same thing. Also, Fado was quite literally designed as a traditional establishment ripped out of Dublin, so it's complete with the beautiful dark, hardwood interiors and soccer paraphernalia adorning the walls and bar.
By the way, since I was born and raised in Atlanta, I feel like I'm compelled from birth to mention The Varsity, as well. It's simply an old (almost a century) Atlanta staple and eating there is more about the experience than the food, but if I didn't mention it I could probably have my Atlanta-card relinquished. Just order the Frosted Orange, trust me.