Steady rain fell over the pitch at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground in Marietta, but Atlanta United was full steam ahead preparing for its final road trip of the month.
The players went through rondos and passing drills on Tuesday morning. On the far side, the team moved the ball around the damp pitch. Head coach Gonzalo Pineda emerged from the locker room a few minutes after the team, strapping on a large, hooded raincoat, and jumped right into the possession games as he normally does.
The last part of training consisted of an intense two-sided competition. In the game, midfielder Matheus Rossetto, who’s working his way back from a hamstring injury he sustained during the match against D.C. United, connected with fellow Brazilian Luiz Araújo on some short, crisp passes. Jackson Conway scored a header on a cross from midfielder Jake Mulraney, then Mulraney followed it up with a goal of his own, a firmly struck ball with his left foot.
At the moment, the team is going through a bit of a dry spell in terms of scoring goals in MLS matches. Atlanta United scored six goals in the U.S. Open Cup match against Chattanooga FC on April 20, but in its last three MLS matches has only scored once. So, the team is using training to work on those things like making sharp passes, creating opportunities and finishing chances.
“We need to continue working hard on the training field,” defender Brooks Lennon said. “Gonzalo is the type of coach that no matter what happens in the game, it comes down to what we do in training. We’re going to work as hard as possible to get the ball in the back of the net for our supporters.”
Tuesday was also a special occasion for one of the newest members of Atlanta United. Thiago Almada celebrated his 21st birthday, which meant another cake-smashing ceremony following training.
Here are a few more observations and insights from the Training Ground.
Working On Crossing
Crossing and finishing were big themes on Tuesday. After training, Mulraney and Ronald Hernández stayed behind to get in some extra reps. They split on opposite flanks, and defender Alex De John would alternate sending in a ball to either side. The midfielders either passed the ball back up to De John or they’d take the ball down the field and cross it into the box.
Assistant coaches Rob Valentino and Diego de la Torre were involved and instructed the players. At one point, de la Torre showed off his form racing Hernández down the sideline and pulling off a long, sliding tackle on the wet grass. On the next play, de la Torre defended Mulraney on the other side of the pitch, but the Irishman beat him 1-v-1 and delivered a bending shot into goal.
“It’s an integral part of our attack,” defender Andrew Gutman said. “I wouldn’t say it’s one of our main points of attack, but it’s definitely something that we’re trying to utilize and we’re trying to get better at. Just putting in good crosses, good service and starting to get on the end of them.”
In its previous two MLS matches, the team has dominated the opponent in the crossing category. Against FC Cincinnati on April 17, Atlanta United crossed the ball 20 more times than the visiting side (27-7). The following weekend against Inter Miami CF, Atlanta United made 25 crosses compared to Miami’s six.
The numbers show Atlanta United’s dominance in the attack. The team possess the ball and creates chances. Although the opportunities haven’t always translated into goals, players are optimistic that soon they will.
“Our offense is doing a fantastic job,” Gutman said. “Thiago, Marcelino, all those guys up front are causing chaos for the defenders that we face. It’s just that final moment, the final touch, being clinical in front of the net, but that’s something we’re struggling at right now.”
Counting On Goals
When asked how he defines a good cross, Gutman’s answer was simple.
“When it goes in the back of the net.”
As good as Atlanta United has been with creating opportunities and getting off crosses, the team has struggled with finishing chances. Even though the team outperformed Cincinnati and Inter Miami in those aspects, Atlanta United only scored once in the last two MLS matches.
“We try our best to get in those areas and create goal-scoring opportunities for our forwards,” Lennon said. “Those areas we’ve done really well at getting into, but unfortunately we haven’t scored as many goals as we’d like to, and that’s something that we’re going to continue to work on the practice field and hopefully it’ll come in the game.”
When it comes to finishing off those chances, both Gutman and Lennon mentioned taking extra time – either on the cross or on the finish. For Gutman, it’s about slowing down a half second before delivering a cross, picking out a teammate and serving a final ball that a teammate can get on the end of. For Lennon, it’s about taking that deep breath before connecting on the shot to make sure to bury the ball.
With a little more patience and composure in those moments, both teammates believe Atlanta United is capable of being better with the finishing touch.
“It’s just us being a little more patient, a little more clinical, and I think things will turn around for us,” Gutman said.
A Trip To Canada
The team is wrapping up challenging stretch on the schedule that required a lot of travel. During the month of April, the schedule consists of five matches away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium and four road trips.
“It was obviously a difficult month in terms of results, in terms of travel, but it’s our job to get through these,” Gutman said.
Atlanta United concludes the month with a trip to Canada to face CF Montréal at Stade Saputo. The last time the two sides met was March 19 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Almada and Lennon scored late goals that allowed Atlanta United to erase a 3-1 deficit and earn a point.
“Montréal is a tough team, they’re a really good opponent,” Lennon said. “You saw what they were capable of doing to us on our home field, but I think it’s going to be a great matchup.”
That meeting was also the last multi-goal match for Atlanta United in MLS competition, so the group hopes that the second meeting between the two Eastern Conference foes will be a chance to score some goals.
To get a result this weekend, Atlanta United will likely need some scoring. CF Montréal hasn’t lost a match since March 12. Since then, the Canadian side has earned all 11 of their points in the Eastern Conference table – while scoring plenty of goals themselves. February 27 against Orlando City SC was the last MLS outing that CF Montréal was held scoreless.
“We’ve been playing well, even though the results might not follow,” Lennon said. “I think we’ve been playing great soccer and they have as well, so I think it’s going to be a great matchup, good game of football. We’re looking to go there Saturday night and pick up points.”