When it’s time for training to begin, players appear from the building and trickle out of the locker room – some in clumps of three or four, some one-by-one. Some players stomp their cleats near the gold Atlanta United logo encased in the concrete, some steer wide of it, whatever superstition they have pulling them to avoid it. Some step in slalom movements once they hit the pitch, picking up their feet and loosening up for training. Some fix their gear or look around, seeing what the conditions are like.
One player emerged from the building on Tuesday and caused the breath to briefly stop for some of us in attendance. His shorts rolled up in his memorable way, he bent his elbows to form two ninety-degree angles and pointed toward the sky, the meaningful gesture he makes to give gratitude and joy back to soccer.
Luiz Araújo was back training with the team on Tuesday. The forward from Brazil hasn’t played since Feb. 27 in the regular season home opener against Sporting Kansas City. In a fast-paced transition moment, he scored the team’s first goal of the season, then had to exit the match in the 20th minute because of a hamstring injury.
Atlanta has been hit with several injuries lately. Osvaldo Alonso, Matheus Rossetto, Josef Martínez and Dylan Castenheira were all sidelined last week. So seeing an injured player return, and a player who means a good deal to the team, was a happy moment for the club.
“It’s a really good thing to see a player like that back in and the smiles and all that,” defender George Campbell said.
In the small side games, Araújo wore a blue-colored pinnie that marked him as a neutral player so he stayed on offense for both sides. Training doesn’t confirm his timeline or guarantee a return to match form (we’ll know more when the head coach speaks on Thursday), but it’s a positive step to have a player of Araújo’s caliber potentially back soon.
Two players, Campbell and Ronaldo Cisneros, spoke to the media on Tuesday. Here were a few things they had to say:
When the Homegrown defender spoke to reporters, he evaluated both his personal performance and the team’s. Campbell was in the starting XI in Atlanta’s 1-0 loss to Charlotte FC on April 10. He played a full 90 minutes alongside fellow center backs Alan Franco and Miles Robinson.
With the variety of circumstances that have occurred this season – Franco’s red card from last season that kept him out of the home opener, Robinson being called up to join the U.S. men’s national team for the World Cup qualifiers, injuries to players like Alonso – Campbell has seen a good bit of playing time this season, more than he might’ve expected. The situation is one Campbell realizes he wants to make the most out of.
“Everything gives opportunity, so I’m just trying to do the best I can with that opportunity,” he said.
The 20-year-old has started all but one match for Atlanta United in 2022. And in the match he wasn’t in the starting XI (against CF Montréal), he came on as a halftime sub.
When assessing his performance, Campbell said he’s doing some things well but seeks to improve in other areas. He specifically wants to get more used to playing on the left. His goal is to be just as comfortable on that side of the pitch as he is on the right.
“I’ve performed well enough to show that I can be trusted, at least,” he said.
Campbell could have a chance to be a big factor for the backline on Saturday when the team hosts FC Cincinnati on Saturday for the first of two matchups this season. The Orange and Blue boast one of the league’s hottest goal scorers, Brandon Vázquez. The forward previously played for Atlanta United from 2017-19 and has five goals on the season.
“I think it’ll be a good challenge, but I think we’re all very capable of handling a player like that,” Campbell said.
The home match comes at an opportune time on the schedule as well. Atlanta United has been on the road for two consecutive weeks and will be the visiting team two more times this month.
With road points tough to get in MLS, Saturday is a good opportunity for the team to secure some points at home and protect the team’s current 10-match run of going unbeaten at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“Any home game is a good time for a home game,” Campbell said.
Campbell was also asked about the newest member of the 5-Stripes. Cisneros is a fast, well-built forward who’s an option for head coach Gonzalo Pineda to fill in the no. 9 position.
Cisneros arrived to Atlanta United from Mexico last week. He previously played for Chivas Guadalajara, a professional Mexican club that plays in Liga MX. He was actually on the pitch against Atlanta United during the scrimmage against Chivas while the team was in Mexico this preseason.
He’s quickly gotten into the mix since arriving to MLS. After only a few days on the ground in Atlanta, Pineda put Cisneros in the 65th minute against Charlotte FC. And Atlanta United got a good sense of what he offers to the attack.
“He’s a really willing runner,” Campbell said. “He almost got in behind actually against Charlotte in the little time he played, so I think that’s something we need in the team,”
In training, Cisneros has shown a relentless energy. He’s persistent on the ball, which was on display last week during a competition. Others had given up on a slowly rolling ball kicked into the corner, but Cisneros pursued it. He outran the defender to chase it down, which led to possession and a scoring opportunity for his side.
“From the very first training session that I had with the group, I think we’re all trying to understand what we have to do,” Cisneros said. “My teammates are understanding the movements that I like to make and I’m understanding their traits as well and what passes they’re going to make.”
This effort showed up again during training on Tuesday. Cisneros went for a ball that was perhaps a tad beyond his reach. He slid to connect his foot with the pass, and the move ended up being just enough to redirect the ball past goalkeeper Justin Garces.
“I think my speed is one of my biggest strengths,” Cisneros said. “But I understand that I have to complement that with my movements on the field, as a forward, by scoring goals.”
The action he saw on the road in Charlotte was his first taste of MLS. Cisneros shared that he hasn’t seen Mercedes-Benz Stadium yet, so if he sees the field this upcoming Saturday, it’ll be his first appearance playing for the 5-Stripes at home.
It’s been a quick introduction to MLS for Cisneros, but he appears poised and confident. He also seems eager to get acclimated with his new teammates, and with Martínez out 6-8 weeks while he recovers from surgery, Cisneros could prove to be a valuable addition to the roster.
“I want to do what I can to help the team with goals and assists,” he said.