Training Notebook: Going to compete 


The first matchweek of 2024 is here.

Atlanta United returned to the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground this week after spending preseason camp in sunny Florida to prepare for its first match of the season. Atlanta United opens MLS play Saturday on the road in Columbus, the first of 34 games on the regular season slate.

While it wasn’t too long a wait (the 5-Stripes played their last competitive match November 12… also in Columbus), Atlanta United made the most out of its offseason. The club added several new players to the roster, especially on the defensive side with center backs Derrick Williams and Stian Gregersen, defensive midfielder Bartosz Slisz and goalkeeper Josh Cohen.

All of these new faces saw preseason action and soon they’ll be available to play competitive minutes as Atlanta United kicks off its eighth season in MLS.

Here are some other major storylines from the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground on Thursday as we get closer to the first matchday of 2024. You can also watch the full media availability on YouTube:

A familiar foe

When the schedule dropped in December, many eyes lingered on the first matchup. And it was an opponent fresh on Atlanta’s mind for many reasons. Columbus Crew ended Atlanta United’s run in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in 2023, winning the two matches in the Round One Best-of-3 Series required to advance. After playing three games against Atlanta, Columbus went on to beat Orlando City SC, FC Cincinnati and LAFC in single elimination to be crowned the 2023 MLS Cup Champions.

“Obviously, it’s a difficult game,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “They’re a very good side. They’re at home. They’re motivated. They just won the trophy. So, it’s going to be a difficult task.”

Columbus has been a difficult team for Atlanta United to beat the past few years, the last regular season win for Atlanta coming in Columbus in August 2021. Atlanta United holds a 6-9-3 record against Columbus in MLS play, and of the five total meetings between the two sides in 2023, including the playoffs, Columbus won three. In 2022, Atlanta lost and split points in the two regular season meetings.

One factor that certainly helps Atlanta: Thiago Almada. Last year’s MLS Young Player of the Year returned to training in Atlanta this week fresh off international duty with the Argentina U-23 men’s national team, which qualified for the Olympic Games in Paris. Pineda confirmed Thursday that Almada is available for selection Saturday.

“I think we’re prepared,” Pineda said. “The team I feel is very focused on the game, and we’re going to compete.”

Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada

Emphasis on defense

Defense has been heavily emphasized this preseason. Atlanta United in 2023 was one of the strongest attacking teams in MLS, finishing the regular season with 66 goals, second-most in the league. However, the team ranked toward the bottom in goals allowed (53), a key stat where Pineda wants to see improvement.

“Can we have a little bit more balance and better defensive actions?” Pineda said. “I think that guarantees us a couple more points that hopefully will put us in the top-four, the top tier, of the conference, so we can be a more complete team.”

If the team can get better on defense, while continuing to remain attack-minded, Atlanta hopes to see better results. Getting better defensively requires a willingness from everyone on the pitch, a term that the coaching staff has coined “press attack,” to help engage attacking players to defend as well.

Pineda expressed satisfaction knowing his players are speaking to this point. He’s especially happy that attacking players are dialed in and realize the importance of defense, which Giakoumakis proved during his availability:

“Hopefully, we’re going to show up way better than last year defensively... It’s really important for us this year that defensively we’re more concentrated, more tough. By starting defensively with zero, then you can demand more things from the attack and from the targets that you have during the season."

Aggressive defenders

Of the acquisitions the team made, two were additions to the backline with center backs Derrick Williams and Stian Gregersen. Both were asked about during the media portion on Thursday.

Gregersen is a Norwegian international who signed with Atlanta United in January after last playing professionally with Girondins de Bordeaux in France’s Ligue 2. When the 6-foot-4 defender spoke to the media earlier this week, he alluded to his experience defending and running up against world-class strikers such as Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland.

“He’s very fast,” Giakoumakis said. “He’s really aggressive, and he saw that we missed that last year.”

Williams is a veteran who signed with Atlanta after the club originally selected his rights with the No. 1 pick in Stage Two of the 2023 MLS Re-Entry Draft held on December 21. The no-nonsense defender is described as playing tough.

“He has a lot of experience in the league and outside of the league,” Pineda said. “His aggression, in general, on and off the ball. His ability to communicate the backline and to lead that area.”

Head coach Gonzalo Pineda at training

Finding ‘belief’ from road wins

It’s no secret that winning on the road in MLS is tough. In 2023, Atlanta United won just three times on the road (including an impactful three points at Seattle Sounders to help Atlanta United’s late push to the playoffs).

Translating the success at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to away matches has been a challenge. The answer eludes almost everyone, so when asked why it’s so difficult to win points on the road, Giakoumakis asked the reporter right back:

“That’s a good question. Do you have the answer?”

“I don’t know the answer,” Giakoumakis continued. “I try to think why this happens and why we’re so focused and so strong at our home, and away we don’t look so strong, so focused and so dangerous. I really don’t know. We’ve discussed this with the lads in the dressing room to try to figure it out.”

Giakoumakis said it hurt the team last year that they were unable to close out some matches and earn a few more points away from Atlanta. That’s why Pineda designed a preseason that created more road environments. Atlanta United played four of its five preseason friendlies outside state lines, including three during the trip to Florida.

The focus this season is to win just as many points at home as the team did in 2024. If they do that, and add a few more results on the road, the team thinks they’ll be able to improve their sixth-place regular season finish and build confidence.

“If you go, for example, start with a win away in Columbus, then go away and win in a tough game, then it comes to the mental part,” Giakoumakis said. “It’s in your soul, otherwise. Then, you believe that you can do this again and again and again.”

A cohesive unit

One common thread with what players expected out of preseason was the opportunity to bond with teammates. Time to get away and focus on the group was especially important with the addition of new faces to the squad.

“It helped a lot,” Giakoumakis said. “We spent some time with each other, and it was really nice. It was a very good chance to meet each other even more and to share things about our lives and open up a little bit.”

“There’s some good vibes about this team,” Pineda echoed.

The head coach shared that the team had a lot of discussions and activities facilitated by the club’s mental performance consultant Ben Freakley (including the epic Rock, Paper Scissors competition, which you can watch here). Overall, Pineda said the preseason trip was a good experience for the group and he liked how his team is coming together:

“The chemistry is something different, something that I didn’t feel before, so I’m very happy with that side. That togetherness, that union between the players, I feel it more than ever. That gives me very good vibes for the whole season.”

Training Photos: Week of February 19
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