“I have great respect for the fans and the people of Atlanta,” he said through an interpreter this week, “and that’s why I wouldn’t celebrate a goal.”
Some say it’s an unnecessary act: While rubbing a goal into a former employer’s face is uncouth, muting expression is contrary to a sport that cherishes every precious score and emotions flow from sidelines to stands.
It’s not like he spent most of his career in Atlanta. Heck, the club did not exist as a playing entity until a year ago.
But that 2017 MLS expansion campaign, eight months of a blossoming love affair between a city and team, quashed doubts about a southern city’s capacity to embrace soccer and etched the Argentine midfielder’s name into club lore when he scored the historic first goal.
“It was a really beautiful memory of that experience,” he said. “I will always have that with me.”
Asad, 23, finished with seven goals and 13 assists on a team that electrified the league with the second-highest scoring haul (70) and performed with championship caliber before falling to Columbus on penalty kicks in the first round of the playoffs.
Despite Asad’s contributions, there was no promise he would return. Argentine club Velez Sarsfield had loaned him to Atlanta for one season, so besides arranging a new loan or permanent transfer, a fresh contract was in order.
While the various sides struggled to strike deals, Atlanta bulked up by trading with Portland for U.S. national team midfielder Darlington Nagbe and acquiring Argentine midfielder Ezequiel Barco, 18, for a league-record $15 million transfer fee.
“Throughout the year in Atlanta, I thought I was going to stay in Atlanta,” he said. “I thought that was going to be the plan, but toward the end of the year and the end of the loan, we figured out I was going back to Velez.
“Back at Velez, I thought I was going to stay there for a little bit or try to go back to MLS and find another team. Obviously, D.C. happened.”
Not right away. MLS’s byzantine rules allowed Atlanta to maintain Asad’s league rights, even though he was no longer a team member. D.C. and Minnesota, among others, were interested.
D.C. General Manager Dave Kasper had to negotiate a contract with Asad’s agent, a loan with Velez Sarsfield and a trade with Atlanta. He also persuaded Sarsfield to lower the option price to buy Asad outright after the 2018 season to $700,000 from $1.8 million. Further details were not disclosed.
Asad joined his new team 2 1/2 weeks into training camp and began integrating into a squad that had already welcomed several new starters. He is a natural left wing, full of speed, technical ability and scoring prowess. In the opener last weekend at Orlando, Asad scored on a first-half free kick.
“Put his numbers aside, which is something we need,” said Coach Ben Olsen, whose team failed to score in half of its regular season outings last year. “His work ethic is amazing.”
Furthermore, because Asad had spent a year in MLS, “you can take a little bit of that question mark of how is a guy going to translate to our league.”
In Atlanta, Asad was among several imported motors in a high-intensity attack that played in front of record-setting crowds: The expansion club’s 48,200 average shattered Seattle’s MLS season mark and the 71,874 for the regular season finale set a new standard for a match.
For most games, Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s capacity is downsized to 42,500. Occasionally, though, the entire building is opened. Sunday’s home opener will be among them.
“The environment there is unique — great stadium, almost always full, great fans and as home team, it’s a big advantage,” Asad said. “It motivates you but also obligates you to do a good job and work as hard as you can. That can work against the team coming in.”
What kind of reception does he expect Sunday?
“I hope they treat me well, only because with the great memories they have of me and the work I put in but also I have great memories of those fans always filling the stadium and being a great fan base,” he said. “If not, I am always going to have great respect for their fans.”
Asked early in the week, before game preparations began, if Asad seemed excited about playing his former team, Olsen said with a grin: “I bet you if you ask him, he knows who we are playing this weekend.”
D.C. United at Atlanta United
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
When: Sunday, 3 p.m. TV: ESPN.
Records: D.C. 0-0-1, 1 point; Atlanta 0-1-0, 0 points.
D.C. probable starters: GK David Ousted; Ds Nick DeLeon, Steve Birnbaum, Frederic Brillant, Oniel Fisher; MFs Junior Moreno, Paul Arriola, Ulises Segura, Luciano Acosta, Yamil Asad; F Darren Mattocks.
Atlanta probable starters: GK Brad Guzan; Ds Franco Escobar, Jeff Larentowicz, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Greg Garza; MFs Darlington Nagbe, Chris McCann, Hector Villalba, Julian Gressel, Miguel Almiron; F Josef Martinez.