As Atlanta United is underway with their new season, so is the Atlanta United Unified Team. The team trained on Wednesday, one of the first practices of the season.
The group trained on a different pitch at the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground than they did last season, under the bright lights of Field 5. The night started with players receiving new gear – crimson T-shirts they all put on to match and train with – and travel luggage with their names on them. Then, they gathered together to learn, for the first time, their schedule for the season. (More on that below.)
For training, the group broke into 4v4 for some small-sided games. At first, it seemed like head coach Marty Jelleme gave his players instructions for basketball practice rather than soccer. They were passing the ball with their hands and throwing the ball into the net.
But, there was a purpose. Jelleme set up the drill to help the players work on their positioning. He wanted them to practice knowing when to move into a space and when to come back to the ball. The most important aspect is for players to learn not to wait or stand still. Soon enough, the players were doing that with the ball at their feet.
The group ended practice with a scrimmage on a full field. It was a lot of space for 6v6, but Jelleme wanted to test the players’ fitness. Like the Atlanta United first team, the Unified team used part of this to work on pressing. At one point, speedster Dylan Lenze created a takeaway and passed it off to a teammate for a shot on goal.
"It feels great," Jelleme said. "We have a bunch of new kids, so that's always interesting blending them in."
2023 Unified Season Preview
The Unified team has a big year ahead and will play two competitive matches. Up first, they’ll host Charlotte FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the same day that the first team hosts. The Unified squads will play each other 11v11 on a full field, which none of the players from the Atlanta United side have ever done before.
Later in the year, the Unified team travels to Dallas for Labor Day weekend. That will be the Unified team’s first trip to Texas, and they’ll play a match against Dallas FC’s Unified team. With two big matches this season, the head coach's expectations are pretty straightforward.
“Wins across the way,” Jelleme said. “That’s it. We are going for wins.”
The Unified team has held a few practices so far this season, but it's still early on. And there are some fresh faces to the 2023 team. But that hasn’t deterred the group from gelling right off the bat.
Newcomer Alex Evans showed his toughness on the pitch Wednesday night, being on the end of a hard-hit ball after taking a knock earlier in training. But Evans didn't miss a beat and continued to play through. Already, there's a lot of buzz about the team's new goalkeeper, Dee Harden. The imposing goalie showed his quickness Wednesday night and why he has potential to become one of the best goalkeepers in Unified Team history.
Sometimes new players gelling with veterans takes time, but the Unified Team head coach said that hasn't been the case so far in 2023. The new roster has gotten along very well and enjoy playing together.
"It's been very cohesive so far," Jelleme said. "We haven't had any problems with that. The kids really get along great. A couple of them are actually friends outside, which we found after they made the team, so it's been perfect."
A Fitness Routine To Build Power
Another aspect that's new this year for the Unified Team is that the players are on a running schedule. The goal is to have players run three times a week up to a mile or a mile and a half. Players send their routes to the staff for accountability. Outside of training together, the players also practice individually working a ball against a wall so they can improve their footwork.
Jelleme implemented this new routine because he wants the team to get stronger and hopes that keeping up a steady fitness regimen will help with that.
"That's the one thing that we're lacking is power," Jelleme said. "They can pass great, but they're not very good at shooting from distance, so that's a big focus this year."
Next week, the Unified Team will have their annual Signing Day on Wednesday, March 15 at Park Tavern. At Signing Day, players who made the 2023 roster will be celebrated and sign their contracts for 2023.
It’s an exciting event to kick off the season. The players' families are invited as well, which means that, for many of them, the night could be a proud and emotional moment.
“Some of these kids have never done it before, and we haven’t really told them what it’s all about. They just know that it’s Signing Day,” Jelleme said. “And I think they’re just going to be so excited and say ‘I can’t believe my kid's doing this.’ I think it’s going to be a great day.”
Stay tuned to ATLUTD.com and our social media channels for more coverage from the Unified Team Signing Day next week.