Voices: Bradley Wright-Phillips

Last June, during a post-match interview on MLS 360, I tried to have a little joke with him, asking if the Golden Boot was in his sights. Atlanta United had just beaten D.C. United, 3-1, and he scored the opener.

Some strikers might brush that question off, play it cool. Not Giakoumakis.

“Every year. I mean, come on. Let’s be honest. I’m a striker. It has to be in my mind, first of all in order to give me extra motivation,” Giakoumakis told us on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.

“Every single game I have to stay focused, I have to find my own motivation and that’s my first one. So whenever I feel that I have to score in every single game, it means that I also have to help the team more. Whenever I score, my team has an advantage. That’s why it’s in my mind always.”

Target set

That response told me so much and it honestly took me back a bit. I was like, ‘Oh my God, he’s not even having a bit of banter.’ Normally footballers will answer with something like, ‘Yeah if it’s there, I’ll go for it.’ They try to be humble. He’s like, ‘No, that’s basically why I’m here. I wanna score goals. I think I can do this. I think I can get it.’

Now, part of that is probably because Giakoumakis has won two Golden Boots before – one in the Eredivisie with VVV-Venlo and one in the Scottish Premiership with Celtic FC. Once you get a taste of that, you want more. You’re never satisfied. He also joined Atlanta with big expectations last year, becoming their new No. 9 after Josef Martínez left. Those aren’t easy shoes to fill, even when you’re an in-your-prime Greek international who’s played on big European stages.

But that’s probably what I like most about Giakoumakis: Being a striker, it’s a mentality. I see a lot of players with the attributes to score goals. They’re quick, they have a good strike, they’re strong or they have decent movement, but they don’t score goals consistently. Scoring goals is a mindset. It’s the demands and the pressures you put on yourself. It’s when you have that killer instinct.

And a top-end striker, when he starts the season, he sets a target and he’s not happy until he gets to that. You might not share that in interviews with the media, or even tell your teammates or coaches. But it’s there. At least in my mind, I needed to be a one-in-two striker. So if I played 40 games, I needed 20 goals. I needed to score once every two chances. I settled for no less and it’s healthy pressure for yourself. I guarantee if you ask Giakoumakis, it’s the same. It’s something that drives him.

We saw it last season, when Giakoumakis had 17 goals in 27 matches. That was three shy of the 20 that got LAFC’s Dénis Bouanga the Golden Boot, but remember how Giakoumakis missed a handful of games to injury and doesn’t take penalty kicks? He didn’t need an acclimation period to MLS, either.

This all reminds me of an early-season conversation I had with Atlanta United winger Derrick Etienne Jr. – we’re close from when we were both at New York Red Bulls. It was probably one of their first games, maybe Giakoumakis’ debut, and I messaged Derrick: ‘This guy looks like the real deal.’ And he goes: ‘Listen to me, this guy in training is unbelievable. There’s nothing he can’t do. If you wanna play in possession, he can do that. If you need goals, he can do that. He can press a back line. He’s not afraid of working.’ That made me really pay attention, someone who’s in training with him every day confirming what we’re seeing from afar.

Another level

Profile-wise, Giakoumakis also reminds me somewhat of Kenwyne Jones. And Jones played for Atlanta actually, back in their inaugural 2017 season. He had that same physique – big, great in the air, mobile enough, he still can move and isn’t slowed by it. Then when he gets in the box, he’s like a shark, an absolute killer. I wish I had a physique like that!

For emphasis: Giakoumakis truly has anything you want from a striker – big, strong, can hold up the ball, makes runs into the box. He has a good strike, left and right foot. He’s great in the air and then on top of that, he wants to score. He actually has passion and this might sound like, ‘Yeah, obviously he’s a striker.’ No, there’s a bunch of strikers who don’t welcome the responsibility of getting goals. If they leave the season with four or five goals, they won’t be upset or it won’t haunt them. Giakoumakis is not that guy. He has all the attributes, and you have to feed that person with chances. You have to give that guy the ball in the box any time he’s open.

That brings me to those around him: Atlanta’s front four of Giakoumakis, Thiago Almada, Xande Silva and Saba Lobjanidze is as good as it gets in MLS. Everything reached another gear when those wingers arrived last summer, and we all know Almada is a fantastic player. They’re going to create chances and should easily reach 60-plus goals scored this year.

What I want to see more now is Giakoumakis being who they build through, who they build the team around. They have to play to his strengths, but he’s in a team with Almada and it’s easy to default to your No. 10 in the final third. So sometimes we see a little frustration from Giakoumakis when the balls are not always going his way, teammates are not always seeing his runs, teammates are not always crossing it when he’s in a good spot. Feed him more and he’ll be even better. From there, the team gets even better.

More to come

Now, where does this all go in 2024?

I picked Cucho Hernández at the Columbus Crew to win the Golden Boot because I know how relentless Cucho can be. But I’ll put everything on Giakoumakis being in the race again – he doesn’t care about the glitter, he doesn’t care about stepovers, he doesn’t care about taking people on or being on the flanks. He’s doing that stuff if he has to. The rest of the game, he just wants to get in the box, be given service and put it in the back of the net. I’m also guessing 90% of his goals were in the box last year and I love that about him. He knows where his money’s made. That’s efficiency, that’s ruthlessness.

We’ll see all this on Saturday when Atlanta host the New England Revolution (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass) in front of a massive home-opening crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. I wouldn’t be surprised if Giakoumakis gets a goal or two – he’s the definition of clinical.