Training Notebook: A chance at redemption 


The full Atlanta United squad was back at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground this week as players trickled in from their home countries following the September FIFA international break. And by full squad, we mean everyone – including Jamal Thiare, the last of Atlanta’s summer signings to unite with the team.

Thiare had his first week of training, including a session open to Atlanta United supporters, as the team prepared for one of its most anticipated matches of the season. The 5-Stripes will face Inter Miami CF for the third meeting this year on Saturday, this time at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. With over 70,000 supporters anticipated, it will be one of the biggest MLS matches of the season.

Only six regular season matches remain for Atlanta, and the stakes are higher than ever, especially against Eastern Conference opponents. Atlanta currently sits in the sixth spot in the standings and needs a result over Miami to continue the push towards top-four.

Head coach Gonzalo Pineda, Thiare and other Atlanta United players spoke to media this week ahead of Saturday’s match. Here are some of the storylines from the Training Ground:

All eyes on Atlanta

It’s not unusual for Mercedes-Benz Stadium to host a large crowd for the 5-Stripes; they regularly lead MLS attendance each matchday averaging over 40,000 supporters in the stands. However, Saturday’s match will be next level.

The record is likely to be broken for the largest crowd for a regular season match in a home stadium. The biggest Atlanta stars and athletes will be in attendance, not to mention all the media that has grown ever since Lionel Messi joined the league this summer.

Pineda recognized the magnitude of the match, but he emphasized that the team is staying focused on accomplishing their goal while using being at home to their advantage.

“It’s always two sides, and one is where it can turn into pressure and being shy and panicked,” he said, “and I don’t think that’s the case for us. When this group has been against good teams this year at home, we have been very efficient. It works in our favor because we’re at home, 70,000 fans cheering for us, that motivates us enormously and we take that energy into the game.”

This match is obviously big from an audience standpoint, but it is also an important match for Atlanta for other reasons. A win for Atlanta would make them the first to take down Miami since mid-July. Also, having a match this big at this point of the season can be used as a momentum builder, especially heading into Atlanta’s next match a few days later at D.C. United, another Eastern Conference opponent. 

“There are many factors in this game that are a part of the message that I’m giving them,” Pineda said. “I just told them there are six games left: three home, three away. The games at home are massively important. This game is very, very important. We can be the first MLS team to beat Messi and Inter Miami after all these good signings they have had. I’m sure if we do that, then the motivation to face the next few games is going to be huge. There are so many things on the line for this match. It’s a big game, everyone will be watching, the standings... just a good match to be a part of.”


Third time’s the charm

The first two matches against Inter Miami did not go the way Atlanta had hoped. Miami defeated Atlanta 2-1 in a regular season match in May, and then the 5-Stripes fell 4-0 to Miami in their Leagues Cup opener in July.

As one of few teams who get to face this new Miami squad more than once, Atlanta has prepared all week to prevent another loss to the Herons. After reviewing those two matches, the team recognized their mistakes and created a game plan for Saturday.

“I think on the defensive end, we’ve got to be more compact and stay together, be more on the same page,” defender Caleb Wiley said on Tuesday. “Miami has a good team, quality individual players, so I think our communication has got to be better. On the offensive side, it’s finishing our chances. In the last game, we had chances that we should have put away and it came to bite us in the end. So, I think if we do that, we’ll be successful.”

Another part of that game plan includes finding a way to contain Messi, who recorded two goals and an assist in the Leagues Cup match between both teams. Messi did not play in Argentina’s World Cup qualifier in Bolivia on Tuesday, but his availability for the match has still not been confirmed.

"I’m preparing the team as if he’s playing,” Pineda said Thursday. “He loves to play, so I would assume he’s going to play. We have to be collectively better, having the ball more than anyone else. That’s the best way to defend, for me. We know how difficult it can be if we allow Messi a lot of time and space, so we have to minimize that danger, reduce the space for him and reduce the amount of passes he can make.”

Atlanta is also expecting a different result than the first two matches because the team is different. Three of Atlanta’s summer signings—Thiare, Xande Silva or Saba Lobjanidze—had not even joined the group by then. Tristan Muyumba was available against Miami in July, but he didn’t make his debut until Atlanta’s next match against Cruz Azul.

The new additions have undeniably impacted Atlanta since their arrival. Muyumba has averaged a 89.6 percent pass accuracy in his five matches, and his teammates constantly rave about his talent and how much space he opens up on the field. Silva and Lobjanidze have also both been impressive on the wings, combining for three goals and an assist in their first few matches with the club.

The team agreed that the experience of the new signings also plays a part in the team’s recent success. All of the new signings have years of playing in Europe and bring a level of maturity the team says they will need on Saturday.

“The experience part is huge,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “It helps when you bring in good guys, and they’re guys that are willing to work, willing to come into a new league, a new environment, a new team and give everything they have.”


Thiare takes on TG

Thiare plans to become just as impactful as the other new signings now that he’s officially in Atlanta. Thiare signed with the club in early August, but due to the visa process, he didn’t arrive in Atlanta until last weekend. The Senegalese forward attended his first training with the team on Tuesday.

“I haven’t seen much of the city yet,” Thiare said, “but from what I have seen, which is the Training Ground and the facilities here, I’m so happy and so impressed, speechless even. I can say that I’m very happy to be here.”

The 30-year-old began his professional career in Belgium at Sporting Charlero. He was loaned to French side U.S. Avranches for the 2014-15 campaign and stayed there for three seasons before he moved up to Le Havre AC in Ligue 2 in 2018. Since then, he has totaled 31 goals and 18 assists in 129 appearances across all competitions.

Thiare’s decision to move across the globe was influenced by his desire to take on a new culture and language. He said once the Atlanta staff reached out to him and he learned more about the club, it was “a no-brainer” that he wanted to join.

“I watched a few Atlanta United games, and I thought they were doing great,” he said. “I also did reach out to Tristan [Muyumba] and Xande [Silva] just to get a little bit of their feedback and a bit of reassurance about how collectively the team works. I loved what I saw and what I heard, so that’s why I came.”

Jamal Thiaré's first training session with Atlanta United