It was a pleasant Friday morning at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground as the team wrapped up final preparations for Saturday’s match on the road. The weather was slightly cooler as the calendar flipped over to September, teasing us all with the feeling of fall.
For Atlanta United, the upcoming Labor Day weekend signals the bookend of a demanding stretch – three games in eight days, the last of which kicks off Saturday on the road against Western Conference opponent FC Dallas. The group will soon head to the airport to depart for the roughly two-hour flight to Texas.
While the weather in Atlanta was noticeably cooler Friday morning, the preparations for FC Dallas continues just the same. The anticipation of hot weather for a match played in an outdoor stadium is a significant storyline, but the 5-Stripes appear more focused on the mental side of their preparation.
“I think everyone knows it’s going to be hot in Dallas,” fullback Brooks Lennon said. “It’s hot here every single day. It’s humid here as well. So, I don’t think there’s going to be a crazy difference from what we train in every single day. It's a mentality thing, blocking that out of your mind, and focusing on the game and doing our jobs.”
Here are a few more storylines before the team grabs their flight to Texas:
El Profe returns to the sideline plus takeaways from FC Cincinnati
Things will look a little more normal Saturday as head coach Gonzalo Pineda returns to the sideline. He missed Wednesday’s match against FC Cincinnati due to yellow card accumulation after picking up his third yellow card of the season against Nashville SC.
Assistant coach Diego de la Torre took up the mantle of managing the team against FC Cincinnati. Pineda said that he is very proud of how de la Torre handled the situation, and how much he’s grown since arriving to the club, and that the feedback he got from everyone in the locker room was positive.
“We’re a team, and I’m very proud collectively of how they did,” Pineda said. “Regardless of the result, I’m very proud of the coaching staff and how much detail they put into that game.”
Atlanta United, led by de la Torre and the other assistant coaches on the sideline, got out to a 1-0 lead, but the home side couldn’t hang on to earn their third consecutive result and fell 2-1 at home. First-place FC Cincinnati scored two goals in the second half to continue their quest to capture the Supporters’ Shield and became the first team to punch their ticket to the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs.
It was a tough way to lose, especially after scoring an early goal to get the momentum and early lead. However, given the quality of the opponent, Atlanta United felt like there were some positives to take away from the match that they can apply to Saturday.
“They’re the best team in the league, as of right now, and I think we controlled them for 45 minutes, so there’s a lot of positives to take away,” Lennon said. “Obviously, when you lose a game like that, it’s heartbreaking and you can sometimes only focus on the things that went wrong, but there are a lot of things that we can take away that we did really well and hopefully we can just transition those into Dallas.”
Preparing for hot weather in Frisco
It’s been a nice run lately for Atlanta United, playing the last two matches in the air-controlled venue of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But that changes Saturday.
This weekend, the group heads on the road for the first time since August 20. And unsurprisingly, it's expected to be very hot in Texas. The forecast for Saturday is 98 degrees with 40 percent humidity. Additionally, Toyota Stadium is a soccer-specific stadium that is also outdoors. (It’s also home to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.)
Of course, training outdoors at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground means the 5-Stripes are no strangers to playing in sunny and hot weather. In fact, Pineda said that the team is “well-adapted” to playing such conditions and isn’t doing anything differently to prepare for the heat.
“We’ve been working the mind because a lot of people are talking about the heat. That’s only an excuse,” Pineda said. “We train every day here in the heat. Out training sessions are very intense, so I expect that not to be an issue.”
Taking it game-by-game
The heat on Saturday might not be quite as big an issue if it didn’t meet Atlanta United at the end of a physically demanding stretch. Atlanta United has played three matches in eight days, going back to the 4-0 win over Nashville SC on August 26.
Atlanta United has gone with the same starting XI for three consecutive matches, which means extended minutes for several players. Regarding resting certain players, Pineda said that they are not even 36 hours from the match against FC Cincinnati. The coaching staff plans to gather the information needed before making the decision on which players need more recovery.
“What I know is, it doesn’t matter what type of lineup I show, it’s going to put the best 11 we can put there to try to win the game,” Pineda said.
With only seven matches remaining for Atlanta United in the regular season, and a home playoff berth at the top of mind, it doesn’t seem like the team will hold anything back. Both Pineda and Lennon alluded to this game against FC Dallas as a final, which has become the mantra since the team had 10 matches remaining on the season. The game in front of them is the only one that matters.
“Seven games left,” Lennon said. “Gonzalo talks about it all the time that it’s seven finals for us. We need to take it one game at a time. I think we’re in a good position. One win puts us higher up the table. We just need to focus one game at a time, doing our jobs and executing the tactics that we set out for Dallas.”
“We said it’s a final, and we have to play that game as a final, so that’s the approach,” Pineda said. “I don’t even care who’s next. It’s Miami for sure, but now all that matters is Dallas.”
Atlanta United Special Olympics Unified looks to remain undefeated
Labor Day weekend marks a notable, extended trip for another Atlanta United team. Following the first team match on Saturday, the Atlanta United Special Olympics Unified Team kicks off at Toyota Stadium. Supporters back home in Atlanta can follow along on the Atlanta United social media handles and stream the match live on atlutd.com/live.
Saturday’s match will be the last match of the season for the Unified Team and could be the culmination of a special season. The Unified Team is unbeaten on the season. The team kicked off 2023 with a competitive draw against Charlotte FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the first 11v11 match in Atlanta United Unified’s program history. They followed it up with a strong win on the road against New York Red Bulls Unified in June.
To prep for FC Dallas, the Atlanta United Unified Team played a scrimmage against a top-notch team: the Atlanta United coaching staff. A back-and-forth match, played at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground, resulted in a 7-7 draw. The Unified Team will be looking to continue the strong showing this weekend in their final match of the season.
“It’ll be a big challenge, but they are so looking forward to playing 11v11, not small-sided. So, I think it’ll be a great day,” Atlanta United Unified Team head coach Marty Jelleme said.
Atlanta United Special Olympics Unified Team
The Atlanta United Unified Team presented by Gallagher is a team of athletes (those with intellectual disabilities) and partners (those without intellectual disabilities) that come together to play soccer in an inclusive manner.