From his first arrival to Atlanta, Juanjo Purata had one goal in mind: to contribute. Purata came to the team midseason following Miles Robinson’s season-ending injury. With the backline shifting, the Mexican defender sought to earn his spot and help the team restabilize.
“Well, my focus was to have continuity,” Purata said. “I came here to win a place in the XI. I came with that mentality, to try to help and contribute what I’ve learned after many years at my previous club.”
The 24-year-old defender came to Atlanta on loan from Tigres UANL, one of the top clubs in Mexico’s Liga MX. Starting in their academy program in 2015, Purata worked his way up through the team and made his professional debut two years later. During his time in Tigres, Purata played in 34 matches and was part of the squad that won the 2018 Campeones Cup, 2019 Liga MX Clausura and the 2020 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League. Purata credits his foundation in Tigres for his work ethic and his leadership skills which developed throughout the season.
Making the decision to come to Atlanta was easy for Purata. His personal goals aligned with those of the club and Juanjo was ready to take that next leap in his career. After talking with head coach Gonzalo Pineda and Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra, the defender was ready to join the team.
“Well, I had a talk with Gonzalo and Carlos before coming,” Purata said. “They told me that the league was very strong and very competitive. I wasn’t used to watching many MLS games, being in Mexico. What Gonzalo told me was I was coming to a club that demanded a lot, a club that is big, important, and popular in the United States, that it wasn’t going to be easy. And the goals of the team were to be in those top spots in the table, qualify for playoffs and fight for [titles].”
Before taking off, Purata had to gain momentum with the group. Coming into a new team is an adjustment for anyone, but Purata said Atlanta felt like home early on. Through language barriers the language of soccer and teamwork prevailed, no translations needed.
“I found a pleasant group full of good people, good human beings,” Purata shared. “From day one I started to talk to some of the Latinos, some of the American players and in one way or another they all took me in. And, yeah, I think I found myself with some really great people.”
Purata made his debut in a bittersweet moment. Just a couple of weeks after arriving the defender was subbed on in the 67th minute of the match against Austin FC. Atlanta was down by three at home and the team needed to tighten up the defense. Juxtaposition of such a high moment like making your debut and the low of losing at home was a tough balance for Purata.
“Yes, it was a tough moment,” Purata recalled. “I think the team was going through a lot of ups and downs. I think in that game, how do I explain it? We hit rock bottom. It was our lowest point, losing 3-0 at home. It was my first game, but I had two or three weeks working with the team, I had come to know them better and, honestly, it was painful. Entering [a match] already 3-0 down as a defender is hard, even more so at home in front of your fans, your people.”
“I really wanted to debut,” Purata continued. “So, in that regard I was happy for making my debut, not only in MLS, but doing it with Atlanta United. And with the loss, like I said, it was hard, not just for me, but for all my teammates and the staff, for everyone.”
After making his debut Purata continued to grow and make his mark in the backline. Just two games after his debut, Purata scored the game winning goal against Orlando City SC at home. That goal was special for Purata, it was the first of what later became many goals but even without his knowledge he scored a game winner in a rivalry match that meant so much to the supporters.
“I honestly didn’t know at the time that Orlando was the arch-rival,” Purata shared. “I learned that afterwards. But the environment the fans created, like every home game, is incredible. It’s incredible the support they give with the team doing good or bad, winning or losing, I think they always show us lots of love, lots of support and as players, we value that a lot. Knowing that all the people that are in the stadium are cheering for you and want you to succeed, that transmits onto the field a lot. Fortunately, that was when I scored my first goal with the team. I celebrated it a whole lot, I was very happy in the moment, and after the game I learned that (Orlando) was the arch-rival of Atlanta United, so the goal counted a little bit more.”
Purata found his footing in the backline, working seamlessly with Alan Franco, Brooks Lennon and Andrew Gutman. The games were starting to change, favoring Atlanta more and just like a plane gaining momentum on the runway, Air Force Juan was ready for takeoff.
After scoring his first career MLS goal against Orlando City, Purata went on to score two more goals. His third goal, one of his favorites, was scored against D.C. United at home. Purata had his family in the stands that day, so as soon as Purata saw his header connected and the ball went to the back on the net, the 24-year-old scanned the stands and dedicated the goal to his family. His goal helped win the game 3-2, which made it even more special.
“The [goal] against D.C. United I enjoyed very much because my family was here, my nephew was here,” Purata said. “Before every match, my nephew gives me a little signal with his hand for me to score a goal, so I looked for them in the crowd, I dedicated it to them. And apart from that, it was the game-winning goal, so I think that was a very special goal because I had never scored a goal before with my family in the stadium, so it was something really special.”
Three goals in one season for a defender is impressive, but Purata didn’t stop there. Purata wrote his name in Atlanta United history by being the first defender to score a hat-trick, even if he wasn’t aware he had made history.
“That’s the first I’m hearing of this,” Purata shared. “(I feel) a lot of pride, a lot of satisfaction. I think being a defender and scoring goals isn’t too common. Now that you’ve told me that, I’m filled with pride knowing that I've contributed something to this club.”
That moment was electrifying. Mercedes-Benz Stadium erupted in cheers for the first goal, then the second, and when Purata scored the third the cheers were almost deafening. But for Purata six goals and one hat trick in a season isn’t enough. He wants more.
“I’m in (team) history now, like you said, but I’m not completely satisfied,” Purata said. “I want to lift a title with Atlanta, I think the fans deserve it. I think, honestly, the people that support us through the good and bad deserve to have Atlanta fighting for trophies, so, I’d like to go down in club history but as a champion.”
The Next Destination
Four months. Six goals. One history-making hat trick. So, what’s next for Purata?
“I want to be able to fight for important things with this club,” Purata shared. “I expect the team to fix the problems we had last season. I also expect the team to be at the level expected of us at this club. I want to give a lot of joy to our 17s so they can feel good about us, so we can be in harmony as a team with our fans. I think that’s really important.”
“And, I have no bigger thing in mind than lifting a title,” Purata continued. “Lifting a title because, at the end of the day, we’re here to win and you always want to win being an athlete. Being on a team, you always want to win and it’s hard when it doesn’t happen, it’s hard when you lose and suffer defeat. But I think that this team is capable of big things. I think this team is capable of winning the MLS Cup.”