After Machop Chol scored the second goal for Atlanta United in the 2-2 draw with Toronto FC on Saturday, he didn’t quite know, at first, how to respond.
Elated, he found his way toward the corner flag and tore off his jersey to reveal a T-shirt that said “Anton Forever,” the words a tribute to Anton Walkes, the former player with Atlanta United who passed away earlier this year. Chol raised his hands to the sky as his teammates gathered around to congratulate him. And so, the celebration turned into a tribute.
“There was no reason in particular for the phrase, I just wanted to tribute him [Anton Walkes] in any way possible,” Chol said. “We were pretty close, so it was just amazing for me, and it was emotional.”
The moment was special for Chol. His goal, which arrived in the 76th minute against Toronto FC on a header off a cross from Luiz Araújo, was the first career goal for Chol in MLS. It also broke the tie in the match, at least for the moment. For nearly 20 minutes the goal was the game-winner, until Toronto found the equalizer in second-half stoppage time.
Nevertheless, the score was important because it helped Atlanta United secure a result on the road for the second consecutive weekend – and because the goal marked a great personal achievement for the Atlanta United Homegrown.
"I was just hoping it wasn't offsides or anything, but it felt amazing," Chol said. "I didn't know what to do. It was just a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts."
For Chol, it was a peak moment on his course through Atlanta United’s system. His path began at the Academy. Chol was an original member of the U-18 team during the inaugural season in 2016-17. With the U-18s, he scored 11 goals and helped them with the Southeast Division title.
For his next step, Chol signed with a collegiate powerhouse, Wake Forest University. The program has made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament 12 straight years, won the NCAA Tournament College Cup six times and produced a healthy crop of professional players. As a four-year letterman, Chol made 65 appearances, started 42 matches, scored 13 goals and added 17 assists for the Demon Deacons.
“I feel like I’ve been pretty much the same person,” Chol said of his development. “What’s changed throughout the years is just my confidence and my self-belief and my preparation and those kind of things that occur outside the field.”
Chol was born in Sudan and emigrated with his family to the United States when he was a child. He grew up in Tucker, Georgia, playing at Decatur-DeKalb YMCA before joining the Academy. He maintains strong ties to his country of birth and plays for South Sudan in international play. Chol earned his first call-up to play for South Sudan during the November 2021 international window and made his national team debut on Jan 27, 2022 in a friendly against Uzbekistan. The 24-year-old was also called up during the most recent window in March as South Sudan seeks to earn the country’s first qualification to the Africa Cup of Nations tournament.
Getting to represent South Sudan is an honor Chol speaks of fondly. He says that the team’s core values mirror what Atlanta United represents: being together, working for each other and trying to succeed.
"It’s amazing, it brings tears to my eyes sometimes because I was never able to go back and visit, I was born in ’98, came here in 2000, so my first time being back home was with the national team,” Chol said. “It’s amazing to see some of my family that my parents always talk about and everything. It’s amazing for me to represent my country."
Chol entered Saturday’s match as a second half sub, replacing midfielder Amar Sejdić. When he was on the pitch, Chol was tasked by his head coach to fill a different kind of role, playing as a mix of a no. 8 and a no. 10, or a second forward to create a second line in the attack.
“He can cover a lot of ground, so I was telling him the instructions was to remain mainly as a 10 in the pocket because when we were getting a lot the ball into our left back, we were missing a little bit that pocket,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “Amar [Sejdić] was dropping too deep because he's more of a possession guy. And then when we were finding Machop higher in the field, I think was better for us.”
Dropping two points in the final moments of the match was a frustrating outcome for Atlanta United, which also robbed Chol the chance to have the game-winner. But among the positive takeaways Pineda listed from the Toronto match was Chol’s moment.
"Very happy with other things," Pineda said. "Very, very happy also with the pressure, the possession in certain moments, how we disrupt their pressure very well in many parts of the game, Machop's first goal in MLS. So, a lot of positives as well."