"Special players": Thiago Almada, Luiz Araujo show quality for Atlanta United

For Atlanta United, there’s been a belief that as their star attacking players train more, moments of connectivity and production will arrive more regularly.

That theory was put to the test Sunday afternoon, with the Five Stripes earning a 2-2 draw against the New England Revolution behind a man-of-the-match performance from midfielder Thiago Almada, their prized $16 million offseason signing (league-record) from Argentina’s Velez Sarsfield.

Almada had a goal and an assist vs. the 2021 Supporters’ Shield winners, while Brazilian winger Luiz Araujo also scored at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as ATLUTD moved to 13 games unbeaten at their home venue.

Their collective quality, especially in 1-v-1 moments, was readily apparent.

“I think we understand each other really well,” Almada said postgame. “We have really talented players, and we need to take advantage of that. Guys like Luiz, Marcelino [Moreno], Ronaldo [Cisneros], we just have to keep working together, keep trying to find ways to improve and keep searching for those goals.”

Atlanta are finding their attacking groove without star striker Josef Martinez, who’s working back to full fitness following a debris-clearing knee operation. Cisneros has become their leading No. 9, earning MLS Player of the Week presented by Continental Tire honors last matchday.

Atlanta manager Gonzalo Pineda is tinkering with how to best situate their DPs and other pieces, even putting Araujo at center forward in the game’s latter stages vs. New England. The former Ligue 1 title-winner linked up with Almada, the 21-year-old wunderkind, on the second-half equalizer.

“Now we’ve had more training, more time playing together and things are going well,” Araujo said of the attacking group. “I think little by little we’re going to improve and score many more goals.”

The group, which cost a pretty penny to acquire, isn’t yet firing on all cylinders. But their momentum-shifting ability can prove overwhelming, slicing open opposing defenses with plays befitting their profiles.

Left back Andrew Gutman sees a group of “special players”, especially when Martinez comes back, that can push the tempo and create chances at will.

“I think the potential is the best in the league,” Gutman said. “You look at some of these players that no other teams in the league have. We just got to utilize them more. We’ve got to just be a little sharper in the final moments.”

The positives come amid a rash of injuries up Atlanta’s spine, principally testing their defensive resolve. That was punctured some when Revolution striker Adam Buksa netted a brace, with the Polish international staying red-hot in pursuit of a Qatar 2022 World Cup spot.

It's in those moments where Pineda sees room for improvement.

“I feel like the team is strong mentally, but we have ups and downs throughout the game and that is what we need to learn, to be more consistent,” Pineda said. “The killer mentality that we always talk about with this team, we need to be more clinical in those moments.”

Weighing the good and the bad, center back Alex DeJohn feels Atlanta’s path forward involves keeping the game on their terms.

“I feel that’s when we are at our best, when we are attacking and they are feeling all our pressure,” DeJohn said. “To an extent we are happy, because our performance, we’ve been playing well, we just really need to buckle down in those crucial moments. We have yet to put a full 90 minutes together. Once we put that full match together, I think we will start to click."