The Atlanta United Unified Team was back in action Wednesday night at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground, taking on the club’s A League Team in the annual scrimmage between the two sides. After a back-and-forth four quarters in the spicy summer heat, the tightly contested match resulted in a 7-7 draw.
To mitigate exertion in the high temperatures and provide ample time for water breaks, the scrimmage consisted of four 10-minute quarters played on a small-sided pitch. Diego de la Torre, serving as coach for the A League Team, made it clear he expected a good effort out of his players but kept legs fresh with continuous substitutions. Marty Jelleme, head coach of Unified, also made several swaps to ensure his players were well-hydrated.
The first quarter kicked off and the Unified Team, wearing their scarlet shirts, lined up against the A League Team clad all in black. Right out the gate, the Unified Team applied heavy pressure on the A League Team players, which included Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda, assistant coach Rob Valentino, goalkeeper coach Liam Curran, various members of the coaching and training staff, and vice president and technical director Carlos Bocanegra.
“The coaches had a game plan for us,” Unified head coach Marty Jelleme said “I heard they were actually practicing some plays to bring it down to the corner, send it across and get us all out of sorts.”
This crafty strategy worked effectively to open the match. The A League Team passed the ball around and scored a few early goals. Then, the Unified Team snatched one back to cut into their deficit. The play initiated on a takeaway forced on Chaz Armand once the Atlanta United security manager tried to loft an over-the-top ball out of pressure. Unified All-Star Liam Stuart took advantage and charged up the field to score his first goal of the evening.
After a second quarter that led to many chances but none converted for the Unified Team, the third quarter proved to be key. The ruthless attack from Unified kept Pineda, who took over goalkeeping duties, on his toes. Pineda showed skill in the gloves and made several flying stops, including a twitchy deflection on a close range shot from Unified athlete Steven Russell. Finally, Stuart squeezed a shot past the Atlanta United gaffer to make the score 5-3.
In the fourth quarter, the Unified Team showed their bravery (and good fitness) to mount an incredible comeback. The group took advantage after referee Marco Patrie issued a red card to Pineda. The Unified team answered with two quick goals, including one from athlete Kelly Robinson when she nutmegged the goalkeeper. The Unified Team didn’t give up and their resilience put the team in position for Unified athlete Savion Brown to score the equalizer that secured a draw against a very tough opponent.
“The kids played great,” Jelleme said. “They had a wonderful time. They had to learn how to mark people in front, which is a good thing because if you play against somebody else like that, they’ll do the same thing to us.”
Throughout the match, Unified took several dangerous shots from long-range that looked nearly as good as a strike from Thiago Almada. Brown let one rip in the second quarter that cruised just over the crossbar. Later in the third quarter, Unified partner Grace Chaplin hit a strike that required a diving stop from Pineda. Finally, in one of the most exciting moments of the match, Unified athlete Anthony Hernandez, looking to build off his brace over the summer at Red Bull Arena, took a direct free kick from about 18 yards out that clanged off the crossbar.
The promising play from the scrimmage leads into Atlanta United Unified Team’s final match of their season. The group travels to Dallas for the first time in history to take on FC Dallas on Saturday, Sept. 2. The Unified match kicks off after the first team match at Toyota Stadium and will be streamed live on atlutd.com/live.
“It’ll be a big challenge, but they are so looking forward to playing 11v11, not small-sided. So, I think it’ll be a great day,” Jelleme said.
In Dallas, the Atlanta United Unified Team will be looking to remain undefeated on the season. The team started kicked off 2023 with a competitive draw against Charlotte FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the first 11v11 match in Atlanta United Unified’s program history. They followed it up with a strong win on the road against New York Red Bulls Unified in June.