Atlanta United trained on Thursday in what was the last open practice before the team plays a friendly in Athens then embarks on a two-week preseason trip to Mexico.
With six first teamers away on international duty (the U.S. plays the first match of this window Thursday night against El Salvador), training on Thursday was a good chance for some younger and newer players to get reps alongside the first team in a dynamic, focused session.
After warm-ups, the team split up into two groups for a possession game. Each group was split into four teams and occupied space inside a polygon marked off by tape on the field. Head coach Gonzalo Pineda on the far side of the pitch worked with one group that consisted of more first team starters like George Campbell, Alan Franco and Luiz Araújo.
The other group, which played in the shape closer to the building, included more younger, newer faces. Assistant coach Rob Valentino stayed with this group and gave a lot of instructions. Players moved the ball through the possession game, some standing on the border of the shape like a wall players could pass to, while Valentino limited them to two touches.
A few 2’s players were in this group: midfielder Robbie Mertz, forward Darwin Matheus and recent signee Jonantan Villal. Plus, SuperDraft picks: striker Tola Showunmi and winger Danny Centeno. Playing in such a tight space was like an icebreaker of sorts for these new guys. At one point, it grew quiet, so Valentino encouraged the team to talk to each other.
“Communicate,” Valentino said. “Learn each other’s names.”
After possession, the two groups stayed separate but both moved to another section of the field. There, they participated in a fast-paced shooting/defensive drill on a condensed pitch (though not nearly as small as the shape they just played possession on). An attacking player challenged a defender 1-v-1; remaining players watched in line around the goal.
During this portion, players were able to work on their 1-v-1 skills and get quick shots off under pressure. Showunmi ripped a few shots.
Finally, the two groups came together for one final drill. It’s often used in basketball. Players go from one end to the other, then back. The drill starts off as a 2-on-1 situation, then two players waiting behind goal join the offense and it becomes a 3-on-2. The play was exciting, rapid and allowed players to practice transition.
Here are a few more insights and observations from the Training Ground on Thursday:
Iron Sharpens Iron
Defender Andrew Gutman spoke to media for the first time since returning to the club after being on loan last season and gave his first impressions of the 2022 squad.
“There’s a lot of talented players,” he said. “This club is very ambitious. One of the first things that is said to us was ‘We want to compete for every trophy,’ and that’s something I’ve wanted. I want to compete for trophies, I want to have a nice career where I have a lot of trophies, a lot of success, and I think this is the perfect club for me.”
Gutman’s previous stint was with another Eastern Conference team, the New York Red Bulls. He was acquired by Atlanta in early 2021 on a permanent transfer from Celtic FC, a professional club in Scotland, but was loaned to the Red Bulls for the 2021 season.
Although he didn’t play any minutes in the two matchups between the Red Bulls and Atlanta United, Gutman says his experience in New York, given that the Red Bulls like to press high, makes him comfortable playing on an attacking-minded team.
The 25-year-old plays left fullback, a position that has a lot of competition for Atlanta United. But Gutman was very complimentary of teammates George Bello and Caleb Wiley (neither were at practice on Thursday). Gutman said that competition at left fullback is going to strengthen the team and that it could be one of Atlanta’s strongest positions.
“It’s a luxury for the team that whoever is playing that position is going to be a great player for the team,” he said.
Gutman has impressed so far in preseason. There will be competition at his position, but he returns to Atlanta with experience, and his comfort with a high-pressing team like the Red Bulls could be a good fit for Pineda’s scheme.
Whether or not he makes the starting XI or becomes an important sub, Gutman’s competitive mindset will light a fire under the other defenders and help Atlanta United be its best.
“To me, it’s one of the biggest clubs in MLS, one of the biggest brands the United States has to offer,” he said. “So if you’re given an opportunity to come play here, of course, you’re going to want to come and play.”
New Roles, New Goals
Rossetto was in a light mood (literally – the midfielder has been sporting a new hair color) and also focused. The Brazilian expressed excitement about working hard and being back with the club for the 2022 season, and has even set some personal goals for himself.
The midfielder took on more of a facilitator role for Atlanta United last season, but says he’s looking to be more of an attacking player this year. Specifically, he wants to get on the score sheet, something he didn’t do in 2021.
“Something that I want to do more this year is playing more vertical passes, playing the ball more forward, joining the attack, getting in the box and maybe scoring some goals,” Rossetto said.
Preseason is the time of year when players are setting the standard, not just for the team but individually. For Shuttleworth, that means settling into Atlanta and, most likely, taking on the role of Brad Guzan’s backup.
“Everyone here’s been really welcoming, and I’ve been really impressed with the setup here and how organized everything is,” Shuttleworth said. “In terms of goalkeeping, I’m just going to be myself and bring my personality and try to put my best foot forward. And whatever situation or wherever they see me fit, that’s the role I’m going to try to play.”
It’s a shift in roles for Shuttleworth, who made and started all 40 appearances over the past two seasons with Chicago Fire. During that time, he tallied eight clean sheets. He’ll most likely be backing up Guzan, Atlanta’s veteran goalkeeper and captain who’s entering his sixth season with the club.
But Shuttleworth and Guzan are alike in the sense that they’re both natural leaders. Shuttleworth has spent 13 seasons in MLS, a good portion with New England Revolution from 2010-2016. While he was with Chicago for two seasons, the team had a lot of young talent, and Shuttleworth found himself taking on the role as a teacher and director.
“I think off the field, I’m a fairly laidback guy; on the field, I can be pretty intense and pretty vocal,” he said. “I think the position calls for that. So that’s something I’ll try to bring and I think that’s something all the goalkeepers here are pretty good at is being very vocal and trying to organize things as much as possible.”
Having a long career in MLS means Shuttleworth knows the landscape of the league. From an outsider's perspective, and if there’s something he remembers most about playing against Atlanta, it’s the crowd.
“Obviously, going to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and being filled to 50,000 people, it’s a tough place to come play, so it’s nice to be on the other side of that and have those fans behind you now,” he said.
Moving Beyond Atlanta
Thursday’s training marks a spot in the preseason schedule when the club is in between scrimmages. Atlanta United completed the first of its six preseason friendlies earlier this week against the Georgia Storm. During the two 30-minute halves, Atlanta scored two goals and gave younger players some valuable, competitive minutes.
Starting this weekend, the team will take its preseason play outside of Atlanta. On Sunday, the club travels to the University of Georgia in Athens for a friendly against the Georgia Revolution at noon.
From there, the club travels to Mexico for a two-week trip and three more friendlies. Atlanta United announced on Wednesday that it added a sixth preseason friendly to the existing schedule, this one against Tepatitlán FC, and that all remaining preseason friendlies will be streamed live on atlutd.com/live.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to get to know the guys,” Gutman said. “When you’re away on a preseason trip like that, you spend a lot of time together. So I’m just looking forward to gelling with the team.”
Atlanta United kicks off the 2022 season on Feb. 27 against Sporting Kansas City at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Click here to view tickets.