Atlanta United’s plan for Saturday was simple: control the tempo, possess the ball more, create and continue more attacks than the opponent, CF Montréal.
As it played out, the match didn’t go exactly according to plan. But at the end, the team came up with plays when it mattered.
Thiago Almada scored his first goal in his second MLS appearance and Brooks Lennon converted a late direct free kick to erase a 3-1 deficit to CF Montréal and extend Atlanta United’s run of going unbeaten at home to 10 consecutive matches.
“Today, we showed the side of the team I’m very happy with because I think that part is super important for what we want to achieve,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said.
The 5-Stripes got off to a promising start, going up 1-0 early in the match. Josef Martínez took advantage of an errant pass in Atlanta’s attacking third and scored in the fifth minute on a clinical finish. It was Martínez’s second goal, his first non-PK goal, of the season.
After that, Montréal established control, drew fouls and capitalized on their chances. A mislaid pass in Atlanta’s attacking third created a wide open chance. Midfielder Ismael Kone intercepted a pass off a corner kick and sent the ball up the field to midfielder Djordje Mihailovic behind Atlanta’s backline.
Mihailovic had only goalkeeper Brad Guzan to beat and finished easily to even the score 1-1 in the 28th minute. The pass was made in their own half, so offsides was not a factor.
Montréal scored again in 37th minute when Kone finished with a first-touch shot from the penalty spot. Five minutes later, Atlanta defender Miles Robinson was called for a foul at the edge of the penalty area. Striker Romell Quioto stepped up and converted the penalty kick to make it 3-1 Montréal.
“We didn’t have intensity on the ball, and then we started to give them the ball,” Pineda said. “And they’re a very good team. Montréal is a very, very good side. I think they did a great job in their buildup and how to disrupt our pressure, especially on the right side.”
Pineda made three changes at halftime. Almada, Jake Mulraney, and George Campbell replaced Tyler Wolff, Ronald Hernández, and Alan Franco. Later in the second half, Dom Dwyer came on for Marcelino Moreno.
Dwyer received a red card shortly after coming onto the pitch and was ejected from the match in the 67th minute.
With 10 men on the field, down 3-1 approaching the 85th minute, it looked like Atlanta United might be on its way to giving up points at home to Montréal for the first time in series history. But, facing adversity, the team found a way to climb back.
“I think after that, we started to see the best side of the team, which is the passion, the willingness, the never giving up,” Pineda said. “Those things that actually I’m very about that part. And then some leaders showing up, regaining walls in important areas, scoring a couple great goals.”
That’s when Almada, the newest member of Atlanta United, corralled the ball from a corner kick and juked a defender to score an absolute beautiful goal in the top right corner in the 85th minute. It was his first MLS goal.
“He was fantastic,” Pineda said. “I think in a different game, if that was the game-winner or something else, it could’ve been even better for Thiago. But I think it’s a great start with the team.”
"I felt a lot of happiness," Almada said. "Very, very happy to get the first goal for Atlanta. Obviously, I couldn't celebrate it a lot because we were losing at the time, but just very happy to get that goal."
Then, Atlanta United was awarded a direct free kick after a penalty in stoppage time. Roughly 30 yards from goal, Lennon stepped up and drilled the shot to even the match 3-3.
It was the fourth time Atlanta United has come back from a two-goal deficit to earn a result in club history. And the win extended the team’s unbeaten streak at home to 10, one shy of tying the club’s all-time best.
“That’s a stat that should go on as long as possible because this should be our fortress in a place that we never drop points," Lennon said. "No matter what team comes and plays us here at the Benz, they should feel pressure."
Despite the thrilling ending and the team’s resiliency to counter after being down by two goals with five minutes remaining in regulation, the team wasn’t completely satisfied with the draw. Montréal had 16 total shots, which doubled the number Atlanta took. And although both teams scored three goals, Montréal finished with 2.94 expected goals compared to 0.71 for Atlanta.
It'll be the half of the match that was lacking, when they gave up three goals, where Atlanta will look to build from as it works to become more consistent.
“To be able to come back, even though we’re not happy with ties at home, it almost feels like a win for us in the locker room because of the circumstances,” Lennon said. “That right there shows resiliency, fight, determination and the ‘never give up’ mentality, which every Atlanta United player should have.”
Atlanta United is now 2-1-1 with seven points in the table. Up next, the team moves into the international break and four players depart to play for their home countries during the FIFA window. Atlanta United’s next match is April 2 on the road against D.C. United.