Homegrowns, young talent brings spark to Atlanta United against NYCFC

Atlanta United midfielder Nick Firmino #51 celebrates after scoring in the second half during the match against New York City FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA on Wednesday, June 21, 2023. (Photo by Mitchell Martin/Atlanta United)

A recurring sentiment that Atlanta United players have echoed this season is about having a “next man up” mentality when certain situations arise. That mentality was proven last night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Viewers who tuned in to Atlanta’s 2-2 draw against New York City FC might have noticed the team looked a little different. The club was without its top two goal scorers, Giorgos Giakoumakis and Thiago Almada. Veteran defender Miles Robinson and winger Derrick Etienne Jr. were also absent on international duty.

But that didn’t mean the 5-Stripes had any less intensity or were less focused on the pitch. They were just a whole lot younger.

Four Homegrown Players were in Atlanta’s starting lineup on Wednesday and six appeared in the match – both club records for most in an MLS match. None of the Homegrowns were over the age of 24, and nearly all of them played a role in Atlanta securing a point to continue its seven-match unbeaten streak.

“It shows that Atlanta, the system, that we can produce guys and compete in this league,” Tyler Wolff said. “I’m just proud of the guys. It’s good to see, and it’s good for the league to have that.”

Wolff was the first of the Homegrowns to make an impact in the match when he scored Atlanta’s 350th club goal in MLS regular season play in the 11th minute. The 20-year-old shot from a tough angle, and the ball deflected off the NYCFC keeper into the net for the equalizer.

Wolff has been a spark for Atlanta off the bench in recent matches, which earned him his first start this season in MLS play last night. The goal was his fourth in seven appearances this season, making him the third-leading scorer on the team.

That first goal was set up by a trio of Homegrowns. Wolff received the ball on the right flank before playing a pass to Caleb Wiley, who quickly back-heeled it to Jay Fortune making a run into the box. Although Fortune was brought down by an NYCFC defender, he played it back to Wolff for his first MLS assist in his second consecutive start for Atlanta.

“For the young guys in the group and the team morale, I think it’s important if we can do this without our big guys,” Wolff said. “We can continue to grind, learn and develop. It’s important to keep doing that.”

Fortune wasn’t the only Homegrown to earn his first assist last night. Machop Chol, who entered the match as a sub in the 64th minute, held on to the ball before playing a perfectly-timed pass to Brooks Lennon toward the end line. Lennon chipped the ball into the box, finding the head of Nick Firmino, who headed it down into the left side of the net in the fifth minute of second-half stoppage time.

Firmino might not be a Homegrown, but he is another strong, young asset for Atlanta. The 22-year-old was signed to a Short-Term Agreement with the 5-Stripes on Wednesday, coming up from Atlanta United 2. The Brazilian has had an incredible 2023 MLS NEXT Pro season so far, tallying eight goals and three assists in 14 appearances and earning a Player of the Matchday honor earlier this month. Wednesday’s match was his MLS debut and first MLS goal.

“Special moment, you know,” Firmino said. “To make my debut here at home especially, and to get the goal was the cherry on top. It’s better than I imagined really. To come on for about 10 minutes and score, the game-tying goal as well. I’m very happy with the result.”

Firmino was joined by fellow 2s teammate and Homegrown Luke Brennan, who also signed a Short-Term Agreement with Atlanta on Wednesday. The duo was subbed on together in the 87th minute, making Brennan the second-ever Native American player to take the pitch in MLS history. The 18-year-old is a part of the Delaware Nation, a tribe of The Lenape people, who primarily reside in Oklahoma. Brennan was a member of Atlanta United’s inaugural Academy class in 2017.

“Yesterday, I told them that’s why I called them up, because they deserved it,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “And they performed very well. We’ve been watching live a few (Atlanta United 2) games at home, and I think they’re up to the standards.”

The last of the Homegrowns, Noah Cobb, filled in for Robinson in the backline alongside Juanjo Purata. It was the second start for Atlanta this season for the 17-year-old, who has also been an asset for Atlanta United 2 this MLS NEXT Pro season.

The last time the club was without key players, the result was not up to Atlanta’s expectations. But the way Atlanta fought back last night, led by the six Homegrowns and Firmino, shows the dedication to that next man up mentality and that the young talent coming up for the club will be something to look for in the future.

“It’s a testament to the depth of this group,” Firmino said. “That next man up mentality. Whoever’s number is called, they’re ready. That’s the mentality of this group.”