Atlanta United closed out MLS regular season play on Saturday with a meeting with this year's Supporters' Shield winners, FC Cincinnati. In what felt like a preview of the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs, which both sides already qualified for prior to Saturday's match, Atlanta United played with 10 men for most of the second half and held on to draw the top seed in the Eastern Conference 2-2 in an electric atmosphere at TQL Stadium on Decision Day.
The 5-Stripes entered the match in sixth place and head into the MLS Cup Playoffs with the same seeding. They finish out the regular season with 51 points in the table. Up next, a Round One Best-of-3 series against Columbus Crew.
"Coming to this field, to this stadium, playing against the first team in the league, the champions, I think we should be proud," striker Giorgos Giakoumakis said. "We should take all the positive things from this game and go into the playoffs and compete at the same time, at the same level."
"I wasn’t happy of course with the two silly goals we conceded, but the performance overall was inspiring," echoed head coach Gonzalo Pineda.
Atlanta United scored the opener on a brilliant team goal in the 12th minute. Building up from the back, Luis Abram split Cincinnati’s two central defenders with a clean vertical pass up the middle to Thiago Almada. The Argentine midfielder found Saba Lobjanidze on the right. The winger took a touch to draw the goalkeeper out then passed to Giakoumakis centrally. The Greek striker slammed it home for his 16th goal of the season to give the visitors the 1-0 lead early.
It didn’t take long for the Orange and Blue to answer, however. Cincinnati's Luciano Acosta controlled the ball, then dished it to Alvas Powell who sent a low, one-touch cross into the box. The pass was perfectly placed for Dominique Badji to finish it off and even the score 1-1 in the 25th minute.
The trio who created Atlanta's first goal of the night would reconnect for the team's second. Lobjanidze, possessing the ball on the right flank, made a short pass to Almada on the right side of the field. The World Cup winner whipped a cross into the box with his right foot. Giakoumakis ran on to finish it off and secure his brace for the night in the 32nd minute and put Atlanta United back ahead 2-1.
The brace brings Giakoumakis's scoring total to 17, which leads Atlanta United and puts him two back of the leader in the Golden Boot race, Dénis Bouanga of LAFC (19). Of his 17 goals, all were scored as non-penalty kicks. In fact, Giakoumakis finished the MLS regular season without a PK attempt.
"I’m proud that I reached the amount of goals I did," Giakoumakis said. "Being that close, without even scoring one penalty, so at the end of the day I’m happy and proud. As I said a couple of days ago, I didn’t care about the Golden Boot anymore. The only thing I care about now is helping my team win."
In the final moments of the first half, FC Cincinnati equalized. From the left side, Barreal lifted a cross with his right foot into the box. MVP candidate and Cincinnati's leading scorer Acosta got just enough on the header to redirect the ball past Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan. The teams went into the locker room even 2-2.
A significant moment occurred early in the second half when Almada was issued his second yellow card of the night for a foul off the ball. The result was a red card for Almada and he was sent off the pitch in the 51st minute, leaving Atlanta United with 10 men on the field for most of the second half. The Atlanta United midfielder will also miss the team's next match, Game 1 of the Round One Best-of-3 series.
Atlanta United's defense, including several second-half substitutes, really held on to keep the first-place team off the board in the second half. The Supporters' Shield winners played the final moments of the match with urgency like they needed a win, but the 5-Stripes flew around to prevent FC Cincinnati from finding the game-winner.
"It was two different games really," Pineda said. "When we were 11-v-11, we were the better side. After that, in the 10-v-11, they had control and more territorial dominance. But what I do have to highlight from my team is that we didn’t give up any goals when they had the numerical advantage. We defended very well, especially inside the box when we were a man down."
Ronald Hernández got the nod in the starting XI for Pineda. The fullback replaced Brooks Lennon, who has logged the most minutes this season out of anyone on the team. The rest of the starting lineup was consistent with the previous few MLS matches for Atlanta United.
Shots on target
Up next - MLS Cup Playoffs 🏆
Atlanta United is back in the MLS Cup Playoffs, finishing up the regular season with 51 points in the table and the No. 6 seed in the conference. They'll face Columbus Crew in the Round One Best-of-3 series. Atlanta United will host Game 2 of the series at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs
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