At the end of training on Tuesday, the club split into two teams for a small scrimmage. The atmosphere was competitive but lively, the players limited at first to no more than two touches. Assistant coach Rob Valentino and defender Alan Franco were the goalkeepers. At one point, the players in yellow pennies started an attack, and Valentino congratulated himself for the throw that sparked the run.
“That’s a good ball, Rob, thanks for that, Rob,” he said.
Valentino shouted it out about himself, but it’s clearly the response he wanted to hear from one of his scrimmage teammates instead. The game continued, most everyone’s attention turned to the action, but defender Brooks Lennon caught on.
“Thanks Rob,” Lennon called out to his keeper from the opposite corner of the field. “That’s good distribution.”
In this game, the players’ creativity flourished. After midfielder Jürgen Damm scored a goal, he celebrated with a move reminiscent to the Aaron Rodgers “Discount Double Check.” Josef Martínez, back in the action from his international call-up with Venezuela, toed-in a couple of goals. Striker Luiz Araújo yelped in the same high pitch tone from last week. Midfielder Ezequiel Barco, who was named to MLS Team of the Week on Monday, flew in to drive a ball into the net.
The team looked like they were relaxed, competitive, quick – and having fun.
Head coach Gonzalo Pineda calls this game “Cascarita.” There’s not an exact translation, but he likened it to the peeling of a piece of fruit. It’s the name for street ball, games that are competitive but fun at the same time. These games are about players expressing themselves, being creative in the attacking third, doing crazy movements, and most of all, enjoying the game.
It’s the head coach’s design to end practice this way. He wanted to remind his players before match day that soccer, after all, is a game.
“I feel like when the team enjoys the game, the fans enjoy it too,” Pineda said.
And about Franco at goalkeeper. Should Brad Guzan be worried?
“No, no, no,” Franco said after training, shaking his hands emphatically. “It’s just in the game that we do that I grabbed the gloves.”
Here are a few more notes to come out of training on Tuesday:
The Mental Game
The team is in the middle of another heavy load, similar to the Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday it had in mid-August (it did go 3-0-0 in those three games). Atlanta United started this stretch of September home matches with a 3-0 win on Friday against Orlando and has two more this week. It hosts FC Cincinnati on Wednesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium followed by D.C. on Saturday.
“It’s a short turnaround,” Pineda said. “But the players just need to prepare their minds more than their bodies.”
The Cascarita game showed that Pineda has struck a balance between keeping players competitive while also trying to keep them fresh.
“We’re working really hard in training during the week,” Franco said. “It’s just a moment for us to enjoy ourselves.”
After this week, the team will travel to Philadelphia on Sept. 25, then close out the month with its fourth home match in five games against Miami on Sept. 29. Although it's a busy stretch, the team views these home games as an advantage that could allow Atlanta to string together some wins.
“All games are important to us,” Franco said. “But I think the home games are special.”
The Grand Table
Playoffs were a hot topic around the Training Ground on Tuesday, and rightfully so. It’s mid-September and the Eastern Conference standings are remarkably tight. Six teams in the middle of the standings are within five points of each other. Atlanta currently sits just below the playoff line with 30 points. The teams in the no. 6 and no. 7 spots, Montréal and D.C. United, have 31 points apiece in the table.
With 10 matches remaining until Decision Day, movement in the table is inevitable. With that in mind, Atlanta seems to already be adopting a playoff mentality in its approach to Wednesday’s match.
“It’s a playoff game for us,” Pineda said. “We need these three points.”
While the head coach is keeping an eye on the table, the players are trying to focus on putting in the work. Both Franco and defender George Bello said they try not to look at the standings, but they seem aware of the situation and the challenge ahead to grab one of those playoff spots.
“Our league is very competitive and our conference is very competitive,” Franco said. “So, we just have to keep working hard.”
The team played a fast, attacking style of football on Friday night that gave Atlanta a 3-0 victory over its rival Orlando City. Pineda earned his first victory as a head coach and was named MLS Coach of the Week.
The level of play was high. Midfielder Matheus Rossetto completed 45-of-46 passes. The team took 18 shots and won the possession battle 55 percent to Orlando’s 45 percent.
The question at this point becomes how does the team sustain that high-level of play?
“It’s a lot of ups and downs in soccer,” Bello said. “When your good form comes you just got to try to ride that wave as long as you can.”
While Friday was arguably one of the team’s best performances of the season to date, the team believes that it's always been capable of playing with poise and confidence.
“That’s the signature of the franchise,” Pineda said. “And the players know that. They have that inside them.”
Bello came on as a sub in the 60th minute against Orlando. He said that watching the game from the bench, he could tell the team had a lot more energy and poise.
“I feel like we’ve always been like that, we’ve always had that in us,” Bello said. “So showcasing that I was really happy to see.”
Let’s Get In Formation Against Cincinnati
Martínez and defender Miles Robinson both played the most matches for their international squads during the World Cup Qualifiers from September 2-9. Martínez’s minutes were a little more uneven – he started for Venezuela and played 67 minutes against Argentina, didn’t play against Peru, then came on as a sub in the 58th minute in their last match against Paraguay. Robinson, on the other hand, played a full 90 minutes in all three matches for the U.S. Men’s National Team.
The situations are different for the two players, so Pineda said that he would take a different approach in managing them.
“Mentally, they look fresh,” Pineda said. “They’re going to be a great addition to have in this next game.”
It’s uncertain at this point how Pineda will utilize Martínez and Robinson on Wednesday – how many minutes they’ll see, whether they’ll come off the bench, etc. Regardless of tactics, the head coach pointed out that what matters most is the characteristics of his players. For Pineda, those characteristics include players expressing themselves, having freedom to attack, and having many options when they attack.
“It’s not about the formation, it’s not about the coach’s ideas,” he said. “It’s about the players performing.”
Bello noted his new head coach is very detail-oriented and is clear when communicating the style of play that he wants, an element that is important when designing training around three matches in nine days.
“It’s easy for all of us when everyone’s on the same page,” Bello said. “It’s easy and fun to play.”
Pineda emphasized that everyone – the players and the staff – being together creates an environment for the players to succeed. Such an environment allows the players to show passion and confidence. Pineda said that when all facets of the organization are locked in, the team is in a good place.
“That’s my mantra today,” Pineda said. “We need to be United. We need to all be together.”
And perhaps no one is more important to creating that atmosphere than the home fans. Members of the team said they could feel the energy of the crowd on Friday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and they hope that it’ll be a similar atmosphere on Wednesday.
“A home crowd always gives us that energy,” Bello said. “When you’re tired and you can see the crowd, they just give you the extra boost.