Leagues Cup

Atlanta United uses break to prepare for first Leagues Cup match at Inter Miami

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In Saturday’s post-match press conference following the loss to Orlando City SC, Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda didn’t dwell on the defeat for too long. Pineda transitioned to Atlanta’s next challenge and how they can accomplish the goal they set at the beginning of the season.

“We want to have a good Leagues Cup,” he said, “and from there in late August, start the last 10 matches of the season and ramp it up to compete for a top-four spot. That’s the objective. We have to work a lot, but there are little details that we are missing currently.”

Ten days separate the Orlando match from Atlanta United’s next test in Leagues Cup, a new, World Cup-style tournament between all 47 MLS and LIGA MX clubs for a chance at bids into Concacaf Champions Cup. In the first of two group stage matches, Atlanta will face another Florida foe Inter Miami CF and their newly acquired superstar Lionel Messi on July 25 at DRV PNK Stadium. The second match will be against Liga MX’s Cruz Azul on July 29 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

In that 10-day window before Atlanta United kicks off play in the inaugural Leagues Cup, here are a few things that Pineda is focusing on:

Getting Giorgos Giakoumakis to 100%

After the regular season loss to Miami, Pineda said it was the final pass and sharpness in the attacking third that was missing. Striker Giorgos Giakoumakis was unavailable for that match with a hamstring injury, which also kept him out of the starting lineup against Orlando City SC and the matchday roster in the 2-1 loss to New England last week.

But in those 20 minutes against Orlando City, Giakoumakis provided a spark and showed how he can affect a game in just a short amount of time. Even with a hamstring injury that has been off-and-on since his MLS debut, Giakoumakis currently leads Atlanta United in scoring with 10 goals. His latest arrived in the 3-1 win over D.C. United on June 10, which made him the fastest player in club history to score 10 goals in just 766 minutes played.

Giakoumakis is currently in Washington D.C. for the 2023 MLS All-Star Game along with teammate and midfielder Thiago Almada. While it’s uncertain how much Giakoumakis will play in that match, it is a good sign that he is back on the pitch for his club. Getting their “Tank” to full strength would bode well for the 5-Stripes because they’ve never lost a match that Giakoumakis has scored in (5W 4D).

“I knew it would be a very challenging year for me because I was playing since last summer,” he said. “So, it would be, in total, one year and a half playing football, and it’s not easy. I knew (Atlanta) would be a club that would provide a lot of passes for me, and they would create a lot of chances. That’s why I was hoping to stay healthy.”

Atlanta United forward Giorgos Giakoumakis #7 heads the ball during All Star Training #2 at National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (Photo by Mitch Martin/Atlanta United)

The return of Miles Robinson

While Giakoumakis getting more minutes will greatly impact Atlanta’s offense, the return of another cornerstone player will improve the defense. Veteran defender Miles Robinson missed five club matches while on international duty with the U.S. men’s national team at the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup. He was available for Atlanta United’s match against Orlando, but Pineda opted not to send him on.

“We were missing for a long time Miles Robinson, one of the best defenders in this league,” Pineda said. “We need to get him back with us. Take a little bit of a break because it was tough to be that long with the national team. He’s missed a lot of games, so he needs to reintegrate.”

While Robinson was away, Atlanta implemented a formation change. After the 4-0 loss to New York Red Bulls, Atlanta switched from two to three center backs – Ronald Hernández, Luis Abram and Juanjo Purata. The change led to mixed results; the team earned back-to-back clean sheets against Philadelphia and Montréal, then gave up a total of four goals in the next two matches against New England and Orlando City.

Reintegrating Robinson to the team at this point of the season will be critical before facing Messi and Inter Miami striker Leo Campana. Atlanta will rely on their 6-foot-2 defender for aerial duels, where Robinson has an 83% success rate, and in the defensive third, where he has made 63 clearances this season.

“The shape in some ways is not as important as the awareness and the individual defending,” Pineda said. “When the back five was working, I said the back five is nothing if we don’t have that full commitment defensively. I will reflect on what is the best shape moving forward to have balance. I hope that bringing everyone together, we can have that cohesion to be balanced.”

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Adding Tristan Muyumba and building momentum

Earlier this month, Atlanta United signed midfielder Tristan Muyumba from French Ligue 2 side EA Guingamp through the 2027 season. Muyumba has yet to join the team in training or matches since he is still awaiting the receipt of his International Transfer Certificate (ITC) and P-1 Visa.

Pineda is looking forward to having Muyumba as an option. After the departures of three regular starters in Andrew Gutman, Franco Ibarra and Luiz Araújo, and with Ozzie Alonso still on restricted minutes since making his way back from an ACL injury, adding Muyumba to the mix will strengthen the team’s depth.

“We, of course, are hoping that Tristan can soon be available with his visa and be integrated into the system,” Pineda said after the Orlando match. “If there are any more new signings coming soon, I hope we can integrate them soon enough as well, so we can have the full squad available. Today, we had it, but some guys like Giakoumakis and Ozzie weren’t 100%. Miles wasn’t 100% to play either.”

This 10-day window is important not just as Atlanta United prepares for Leagues Cup but also for the team’s chances in qualification for the MLS Cup Playoffs. After Leagues Cup, which runs July 21-August 19, just 10 regular season matches remain on Atlanta’s schedule. So, as the team prepares for a new competition, Atlanta United hopes this window will also bolster its return to MLS action and provide momentum to make a run in the Eastern Conference table.

“We have to get ready for Leagues Cup,” midfielder Amar Sejdić said. “Leagues Cup is going to be a very big tournament, and of course, we have high expectations. This is Atlanta United, and we want trophies, so we are going to go for it all in Leagues Cup. Then once MLS resumes after that... we’re going to have to put our foot on the throttle and try to get as many points as we can so we can get a home playoff game.”

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