It’s early springtime in Georgia, right when the cherry blossoms are blooming and in true Southern fashion, the pollen is thick, caking the screens of cell phones, drying out throats and sparking conversation on which allergy medication gives the most relief.
The decent size group of reporters at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground may have been wiping the pollen from their camera lenses, but Atlanta United didn’t allow the pollen to irritate them.
The team practiced fully on Tuesday. They started with keepaway drills then moved onto diamond passing drills and possession games. All of these took place on the far side of the pitch. From a distance, it was hard to tell apart the players, so reporters carried their video cameras across the field to record clean shots.
And when the players moved close to the building for the final part of practice, there was a boom in volume. Coaches divided the players into four teams, and two teams competed in a “make it, take it” challenge. It was 5-v-5, but only one side had a goalkeeper, as Bobby Shuttleworth made sure to remind assistant coach Diego de la Torre when he forgot to count the goalkeeper. (“I’m a soccer player too, man,” Shuttleworth cracked.)
The coaches put the players through the drill and limited players’ touches. It was clear that the point of the game was to work on high pressure. When one team had the ball, the opposition applied heavy pressure immediately, almost as if the contest was how deep on the field they could take away the ball.
The games took place on a smaller pitch with a regulation-size goal on one side and two miniature goals on the other, which explains why assistant coach Eugenio Villazón urged players to “make the field big.” The small pitch size created fast-paced play, like a sharp cut and right-footed shot from forward Erik Centeno and a doubtless, firm strike from midfielder Santiago Sosa.
Here are a few more observations from the Training Ground on Tuesday:
Sosa was available after training today. The midfielder was one of the three members of the team who had a short delay arriving to Atlanta after the preseason trip to Mexico. He, along with Franco Ibarra and Thiago Almada, had to wait in Argentina on their visas. Sosa also spent preseason working his way back from sports hernia surgery he went through in November.
Sosa played his first minutes of the season coming on as a sub in the 79th minute against CF Montréal. He was on the pitch for the end of the match when Almada and Brooks Lennon scored goals to lead to Atlanta United’s comeback.
The midfielder assessed his health and fitness at media on Tuesday. He said he’s feeling good, tactically and physically, and could go a full 90 if needed.
“I feel comfortable with whatever the coach asks of me, whatever role he needs me to fill,” he said.
Sosa appeared to be moving well throughout training. In fact, he spent extra time on the pitch after training concluded. All of the players headed to the locker room except Sosa, who worked individually with the head coach Gonzalo Pineda and the other assistants on passing and match-like situations.
“I’m very motivated to play,” Sosa said. “I feel like I can play 90 minutes. Ultimately, it’s the coach’s decision who plays and also who travels. All I can say is I feel fully prepared.”
With Sosa returning, a midfield that seemed depleted during the team’s 3-0 loss to Colorado Rapids suddenly seems full. Ozzie Alonso, Marcelino Moreno, Almada and Sosa are making their way back to earning playing time. They join Amar Sejdić, Mattheus Rossetto and Jake Mulraney, who have each had good moments in 2022.
It’s a talented group, but Sosa welcomes the chance to compete.
“I think it’s a very healthy competition we have on the team,” Sosa said. “It’s good that we have that kind of competition because it makes each one of us better.”
Five members of the first team are away on international duty and will be returning to the club later this week. Their absence made space for several young players to practice such as Centeno, Aiden McFadden and Noah Cobb, who came up from the 2's to train with the first team.
Cobb was also available to the media after training. It was his first time speaking with reporters since signing with Atlanta United 2 on March 23, and taking on a group of cameras head-on in his first appearance as a professional soccer player, Cobb looked older and more poised than his 16 years might indicate.
“It was a lot of work in progress, but really the works starts now,” Cobb said. “Developing in the Academy it was tough, and it was fun. But now, stepping up to the professional level, there are more responsibilities. So, I’ve got to take that on board and keep working.”
The 16-year-old defender worked his way up through Atlanta United’s academy. Originally from Chattanooga, Tenn., he played recreational ball there before making the transition to Georgia. He joined the U-12s and was part of the U-14 squad that won the Manchester City Cup in 2019.
He joined the first team this preseason and traveled with the club to Guadalajara, Mexico. Although he claimed to be nervous at first, Cobb had some other young players around like Homegrowns Caleb Wiley and Tyler Wolff to usher him to the team. He trained with the first team during the trip and started the scrimmage against Tepatitlán FC on Feb. 13.
“I got to know the guys and I got a little bit of a taste of the level,” he said. “It was a really good trip, playing against two of the teams down there, really good competition, so it was good.”
Cobb’s contract is also an MLS deal, which goes into effect next year, and he’ll officially become an Atlanta United Homegrown player in 2023. While he’s certain there’s no rush for him to be on that level just yet, he feels confident he can play in MLS.
“I think I can play at this level, it’s definitely something I’m going to have to work my way into the group,” he said. “When you’re the new kid on the block, it’s a little bit different. I think with time I can definitely work into the group. I think I have the ability to do so.”
Atlanta United 2
It’s a big week for Atlanta United 2 as the team picked up its first win of the season, taking advantage of a 10-man Charleston Battery side and winning 4-1 at Fifth Third Bank Stadium. Conway led the way with three goals and an assist.
It was Conway’s first hat trick, and he was voted USL Championship Player of the Week for his performance.
Cobb, who’s playing with the 2’s this season, was in the starting XI in the match against Charleston Battery. He’s started all four matches and played a full 90 in every 2's match so far in 2022.
As he looks to grow into an MLS caliber player, Cobb is hoping to learn some leadership skills while with the 2’s. He’s particularly taking the opportunity to learn from Mikey Ambrose and Alex De John, who have also been playing with the Atlanta United 2 some this season.
“Individually, I want to step up and see how big of a leader I can be in that 2s locker room,” Cobb said. “I know I’m new, but there’s still a lot of kids that have less appearances than me, so maybe I can be a shoulder they can lean on and help them out.”
Cobb is using this season with the 2's to help him gain some experience and help prepare for when that Homegrown contract goes into effect next year.
“For me right now, it’s taking everything in and seeing how much I can learn and develop and then apply that knowledge down in the 2s games,” Cobb said. “Because I can use those 2's games as a real focal point and a learning opportunity for me so that way next year I can be as prepared as possible during the MLS season.”
As Cobb looks to grow individually as a leader, he wants to help Atlanta United 2 reach a specific milestone this season and do something it's never done before: qualify for the USL playoffs and contend for a title.
“That’s the big main goal for us this year,” Cobb said.
Goal of the Month
On Tuesday, the club announced the goal of the month presented by Lunazul. Although there were some memorable goals during March – Mulraney’s game-winner against Charlotte FC and the direct free kick from Brooks Lennon – this month’s award goes to arguably the trickiest of them all: Almada’s strike against CF Montréal in the 85th minute.
It was Almada’s first goal with the club, and it arrived in just his second appearance in MLS. The midfielder previously appeared in the Charlotte match, coming on as a sub in the 56th minute to make his club debut, a moment he said gave him goosebumps. He replaced Wolff at halftime against Montréal. Later in the half, he found the back of the net.
“We’re very happy for Thiago,” Sosa said. “He’s a new player who’s new to the group. He just joined us this season, but he’s an excellent player. He’s shown that during his time in Argentina. And when he scored that goal, all of us, his teammates, were really happy. Not just because it was his first goal, but because it led to the tying goal in the match.”
The finish was arguably the best of Atlanta United’s year so far. Almada controlled a bouncing ball off Lennon’s corner kick. Then, he created some space for himself after throwing off a Montreal defender. Almada delivered the strike while leaning back, and it was perfectly placed in the upper right corner beyond the keeper’s reach.
“It was a golazo,” Sosa said.
The start of 2022 has been solid for Atlanta United as it earned seven points in its first four matches. The club took advantage of having three of its first four matches at home and continued to defend its current streak of going unbeaten at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 10 straight matches.
Last time out, Atlanta United made an improbable comeback, scoring two goals in the final minutes of the match with just 10 men on the field to erase a 3-1 halftime deficit. The team went on to earn a positive result and draw CF Montréal 3-3.
“For us to be able to come back, I think it gave us a positive mental boost,” Sosa said.
Now, the team emerges from the international break into a challenging stretch. In April, the club will host just one match at home. This month, the team travels for the first of two meetings against Eastern Conference foes D.C. United and Inter Miami. It will also travel to Canada for its second matchup of the season against CF Montréal and to the Carolinas for the club’s first-ever appearance at Bank of America Stadium.
It's a long season, but the club knows the importance of these matches early in the schedule.
“I think it’s really important to pick up points early in the season because by midseason you can kind of see teams already be in their place in the standings,” Sosa said. “Last year, for example, New England was able to get a big advantage early and they were able to maintain that throughout the season.”
The first road test of April is this Saturday when the team travels to D.C. where more cherry blossoms are in bloom. Stay tuned to ATLUTD.com for more match coverage.