It’s a new year, and Atlanta United is back. The team returned to the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground on Tuesday for its first training session of the 2022 preseason.
And it was definitely cold. Tuesday arrived just a couple days out from a storm that brought the first measurable snow in Atlanta since 2018. The temperature hovered in the mid-30s, and the fog of breath was clear across the pitch. But the sun was out, making the fearsome temperature feel a little less cold than it actually was.
Atlanta United’s session began with keepaway drills on the far side of the field before players moved on to some possession games. During one of those, players were divided into teams. A few players were given orange pennies to play for both sides as neutral players. Three tight areas were marked off, which forced the ball to move quickly to maintain possession.
“Open it up a bit,” goalkeeper coach Liam Curran called out during the game.
Josef Martínez was out there, taking an active part in the drills. So was Luiz Araújo, who looked sharp working with scrimmage teammates Marcelino Moreno and Ronald Hernández and scoring back-to-back goals from a long distance on a small net. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan, wearing a beanie on his head, was looking like himself clearing balls from the box and giving his team directions.
However, it didn’t take long into the practice to realize there was a significant presence missing. Gonzalo Pineda wasn’t at training on Tuesday due to health and safety protocols. So, Atlanta United had to begin the preseason without its head coach physically with them.
The team said they spoke with Pineda via Zoom before training in the morning, and that’s when he was able to give the team a welcoming message. Even though it’s a situation less than ideal, the players’ level of excitement was still high.
“First day of preseason is always exciting, it’s always got a certain level of anticipation to it,” Guzan said. “There’s a certain buzz around the building, which is always good.”
Here are a few more observations and insights from the team’s first training session of the year in Marietta:
With the first day of preseason, all those observing practice were glancing around, taking stock of Atlanta’s new players. Tuesday’s session gave us the first glimpse of Osvaldo Alonso, the veteran midfielder from Seattle Sounders, along with new goalkeepers Dylan Castanheira, Justin Garces and Bobby Shuttleworth. Striker Tola Showunmi, one of Atlanta’s four picks in the MLS SuperDraft last week, was easy to spot with his 6-foot-3 frame.
The most notable absence was Pineda, but several more players were not at training. Some, like Pineda, were in health and safety protocols: defender Mikey Ambrose, midfielder Matheus Rossetto, striker Darwin Matheus, and two of Atlanta’s SuperDraft picks, strikers Erik Centeno and Daniel Bloyou.
Midfielder Jake Mulraney, the international from Dublin, Ireland, was away as well because he was finishing up his green card process. Two players were given permission to report on a later date: midfielder Ezequiel Barco and striker Erik Lopez.
Midfielders Santiago Sosa and Emerson Hyndman were continuing to rehab from injuries. Hyndman is working his way back from an ACL tear he had during the 2021 season. Sosa underwent sports hernia surgery in November.
Finally, three defensive starters are currently with the U.S. men’s national team in January camp: Brooks Lennon, Miles Robinson and George Bello.
“The fact that three of our four on the backline is with the national team right now is pretty exciting,” Guzan said.
Even though practice wasn’t as full as some expected, the team wasn’t deterred. Assistant coaches jointly led the practice and kept the pace high. Rob Valentino assigned teams and pitches to play during the possession games. Curran gave instructions during the possession drills.
With several weeks to go before the season opener on Feb. 27 against Sporting Kansas City, the team is intent and focused on setting the standard early.
“I think with a preseason, it certainly allows us that timeframe to now try and really grasp the concepts they want us to do, but then also hold each other accountable and hold each other to a high standard and have a real understanding of what it takes to win,” Guzan said.
An Alonso-Pineda Reunion
A new face at training on Tuesday was one of the club’s biggest acquisitions this offseason, Alonso. Atlanta United announced it signed the veteran as a free agent on Dec. 23, 2021.
And on his first day training with the new team, Alonso was the first to stand at the microphone at media availability to answer questions following the session. He was confident at the mic, sharing that so far joining the club has been “brilliant.”
“Since I've come here, since day one, I feel like at home,” he said. “I’m very happy to be here. The city, the people, the club, everything has been great.”
The midfielder arrives to Atlanta United with 13 years of playing experience in the MLS, a span that includes over 350 appearances and six trophies. Most of that playing time came with the Seattle Sounders. He was part of Seattle’s championship run to the MLS Cup in 2016 and helped the Sounders win four Open Cup titles.
While in Seattle, Alonso played alongside Pineda. He was also in Seattle when Pineda was an assistant coach. The two know each other well, so when he got the call from Pineda about joining Atlanta, Alonso said it was an easy choice to make.
“He knows what I can bring for the team,” Alonso said. “So he told me if I want to help the team in any way possible, and I said yes.”
Although there’s familiarity, Alonso insists that the approach is different because this time Pineda is a head coach. Still, it’s clear the mutual respect between the two is a big reason why Alonso decided to sign with Atlanta United.
“Now, I’m back at the beginning,” he said. “I want to help him to do some stuff as a head coach. So for him to be head coach from the beginning now it’s going to be a special. I want to be a part of that moment for him.”
Atlanta Adds A Homegrown
On one side of the coin is Alonso, a seasoned veteran joining Atlanta after spending 13 years with other MLS clubs. And on the other side of the same coin is the newest addition to the first team, a 17-year-old who’s been with Atlanta all his playing career.
Prior to training on Tuesday morning, the club announced it signed defender Caleb Wiley to a Homegrown deal that will take him through the 2025 season. Wiley joined Atlanta United when he was 11 years old and became a member of the inaugural U-12 academy team in 2016. From there, he moved all the way through the ranks, playing with Atlanta United 2 and now signing a contract with the first team.
“I’ve always wanted this ever since I came here,” he said. “To finally get here and be a part of this team, it’s amazing.”
Wiley participated in training on Tuesday and although he’s practiced with the first team before – he recalled the first time was at the end of 2020 when the club was training for the Concacaf Champions League – the youngster has already made an impression on senior members of the team.
“You can certainly see why the excitement is there and why the talk is around him,” Guzan said.
The club is excited about Wiley’s potential, both at home and on the international stage. In November, Wiley was part of a group of Atlanta United players called up to join their national squads. He played three matches and started twice for the U.S. men’s national U-20 team at the Revelations Cup.
His pathway to the pro level is remarkably similar to Bello’s, a member of an inaugural academy team who worked to become a regular starter for Atlanta United and obtain a callup for the U.S. men’s national team.
Could Wiley be on the same path? Only time will tell. The club views him as a strong prospect, and Homegrown players have certainly contributed significantly to Atlanta United.
But as for right now, Wiley finds himself right where he's always wanted to be.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said.
Atlanta United kicks off the 2022 season on Feb. 27 against Sporting Kansas City at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Click here to view tickets.