Atlanta head coach Gonzalo Pineda noticed. But he wasn’t about to let those distractions affect his team, specifically the burning question of whether or not Messi would play after flying back from Argentina for national team duty.
“A lot of things that are going out there in the atmosphere and everything seems to be about Inter Miami, about Messi, about all that,” said Pineda after the match. “And I told them we have to turn that down to ‘it’s about us, it’s about Atlanta United.’”
Mission accomplished. In a massive 5-2 win that featured three of Atlanta’s major summer signings playing key roles, the Five Stripes made a statement about their own intentions to be a top threat in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs. The blowout result puts them within three points of a top-four seed, which would guarantee home-field advantage in Round One.
Messi may not have played, or even suited up for the bench, but that hardly mattered to winger Xande Silva – one of the club’s aforementioned summer signings – who might have summed up his team’s defiant feelings best.
“We don’t care about Messi," said the formal Portugal youth international. "We care about us. We want to be in the playoffs."
Added Thiago Almada, Messi's international teammate: "I don’t know if it made it easier because they have great players on their team as well. They have a great team and are playing very well, but today showed we had the merit to win this game."
The scintillating play of Silva, alongside fellow newcomers Tristan Muyumba and Designated Player Saba Lobjanidze, was key to securing the result, with each making crucial plays to help fuel ATL's scoring outburst. Muyumba scored a header to tie the game at 1-1 in the 36th minute. Silva put the team ahead just five minutes later with a dangerous box cross that led to a Kamal Miller own goal. And Lobjanidze iced the game with two assists in the final 20 minutes.
Pineda is pleased with how his new players are integrating, and with the thorough process that went into signing them.
“I’ve been saying this since a couple of weeks ago in press conferences: kudos to the front office and the scouts,” praised Pineda. “I think they’ve been doing a great, great job. I've been witnessing this process in data, the process filtering the best players in each position, different continents, scouting different continents, and also looking at the personal aspect of their culture, how they behave as human beings, how they are in the locker room.
“So we are asking questions to people that we know and then the final stage of picking the right player out of the best three or four and then making it happen. So it’s a lot of process so that now we are enjoying many good players, good human beings and good leaders.”
Still, the head coach insisted the collective performance of his group stood out over any individual contributions. Now he just wants even more consistency in the team’s ruthless attacking movements – especially so they can finish where they want in the Eastern Conference.
“The job is not done at all. Like, we're still not in the top four. Still, we’re not for sure in playoffs. I mean, there are still many things to do. Some teams have a couple of games ahead of us, so we still need to catch up to a few,” said Pineda, later adding: “They can have even better actions, better interactions to create even more chances. So I think we're heading in the right direction, and I hope we can train even more on those combination plays to make sure that we are not predictable in the way we are attacking the final third.”
For now, the coach says he plans on celebrating a “fantastic night for us” before turning the page to Wednesday’s road match against a D.C. United side desperate to earn one of the East’s last playoff spots (7:30 pm ET | Apple TV - Free).
Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan intends to celebrate the win too: “I think tonight was a fantastic night for everyone in the stadium and for everyone watching at home to see what soccer in Atlanta is all about. I said before the game: It was up to us to give 75,000-something to cheer about it. We certainly did that.”