Atlanta United is back on home turf this Sunday after two road matches against New York City FC and Toronto FC. The team secured a point in each of the previous two matches, a solid outcome in MLS where earning points on the road is a difficult task, but it is looking for something more out of the next match on Sunday.
“They’re hungry,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said on Friday. “Not just the guys that play, but also the guys that didn’t play. I see a lot of competition. For me, that’s what is in the back of my head is there’s a lot of competition. Everybody shows well in the training sessions. It’s hard to tell at times who are the starters and who are not.”
Despite bringing home two points, the group was less than satisfied with the result. At times in both games, it looked like three points were all but secured for the 5-Stripes, but second half equalizers robbed Atlanta of two big wins.
Instead of letting frustration carry over into this week’s training, the team has turned it into motivation. Sessions were filled with intensity and focus, with a heavy emphasis on defending, as the group prepares for Chicago Fire on Sunday.
“We’re disappointed with a couple results,” Derrick Etienne Jr. said on Friday, “but that’s something that shows how good of a team we are, that we’re able to go on the road, get a point and be upset about it.”
Pineda has had to rearrange the starting lineup a few times throughout the first few months of the season, which has created some competition for playing time. Against Toronto, midfielders Thiago Almada (lower leg) and Franco Ibarra (suspension) were replaced by Santiago Sosa and Matheus Rossetto in the starting XI. Defender Andrew Gutman returned to the pitch as a sub for the first time since sustaining an adductor injury against Columbus on March 25.
Forward Machop Chol was another important factor in the draw in Toronto. His first MLS goal in the 76th minute put Atlanta up 2-1 late in the second half. His versatility, goal-scoring abilities and recent performances off the bench have made him another strong option for Pineda.
“We’ve been using him as a winger,” Pineda said. “I heard that he used to also play as a 9. Certain sessions last year, I used him as a 10. We had this agreement that he can perform in multiple positions. We've seen multiple great goals that he scored in the training sessions. He’s goal-dangerous, and he has that instinct for being dangerous in the final third. It’s something that we know Machop can provide for the team.”
Sunday’s match against Chicago Fire will be the first of three opportunities this week for those players working to find more playing time. Atlanta United will face Memphis 901 FC on Wednesday, April 26 in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup before traveling to Nashville for an MLS matchup on Saturday, April 29.
Etienne Jr. said the busy matchweek should not be an issue for the team as long as they prioritize recovery and take advantage of their depth.
“When you’re a young kid, you see teams play Sunday, Champions League Tuesday, game Saturday, then FA Cup Wednesday,” he said, “so, you always want to be a part of a lot of matches, and I think that’s the standard we put ourselves at, wanting to be a high-level team. Recovery will definitely be important, making sure that after the first game, we’re able to get our bodies right before the second game. But we have a large group, and I feel like that will come into play.”