For the last part of training on Tuesday, Atlanta United players competed in a pair of intense, small-sided games on the near side of the pitch. Local reporters were out to watch, the club’s social media team gathered to capture content, getting set up for another post-practice birthday tradition, even some academy players, fresh on concluding their own training, sat nearby to get a glimpse of the first team.
And that’s when the golf cart rolled up.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan sat on the passenger side, his right leg, bound in a bulky boot, dangling off the edge. (He managed to trap an errant ball with said boot, issuing a resounding thud.) In the trunk of the cart was Guzan’s partner in the position Dylan Castanheira, who also suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon.
And in the driver’s seat, the most recent of the Atlanta United players to meet the misfortune of injury: Andrew Gutman. The club announced on Monday that Gutman will be out 8-12 weeks with a quadriceps tendon injury. The defender suffered the injury during the team’s 2-2 draw on the road to Nashville SC on Saturday.
In his first season playing in Atlanta, Gutman has been a reliable presence on the pitch. Prior to the injury, he started every single match this season and played more minutes than anyone else on the roster. He was a good defender on the backline who could also make runs in the attack and connect with playmakers like Thiago Almada.
The group on the golf cart took in training and stayed involved in team activity, encouraging teammates and remarking on good play.
Here are some more observations and insights from Tuesday:
When striker Dom Dwyer spoke to media on Tuesday, he was absolutely drenched. Sweat dripped from his face. A stray piece of grass lingered on his forehead.
He’d come straight off the pitch from what was perhaps one of the most intense and competitive training sessions we’ve seen at the Training Ground. Play was physical during the small-sided games that concluded training. At one point, Dwyer and defender Alan Franco got tangled up and exchanged words.
“It’s normally pretty intense,” Dwyer said. “We try to battle through the week and then we’ll taper off toward the game. But we try to get after it.”
The morning began with fitness coach Jack Kimber guiding the team through warm-ups. For passing drills, dummies were set up on the far side of the field. Arranged in a diamond, players passed the ball from one corner of the shape to the next, working on moving the ball quickly, taking no more than two touches, then filling the spot of the player they passed to.
For the next section of practice, players were grouped into three teams. One team stood stationary on the edges, functioning as a neutral wall for players in the middle to pass to. The two teams in the middle battled for possession and worked on the high press. Assistant coach Eugenio Villazón gave instructions:
“If you lose the ball, it’s very important that you sprint because it’s a counter-attack.”
There were two goals on either end that the teams tried to score in. When the ball went out-of-bounds, an assistant coach served in another from one of the two sidelines.
“We’re constantly moving,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda called out.
Finally, for the last section of practice, coaches divided the players into four teams to compete in two small-sided games on regulation-size goals. Vicente Reyes, a goalkeeper for Atlanta United 2, filled in one of the four goalkeeper spots. The field play was physical as the players pushed to score. At one point Amar Sejdić and Brooks Lennon fought for the ball. Sejdić came up with it and finished with a driven shot.
“We got a last-minute point [in the draw against Nashville], and we’re pretty happy with that, but we’d like to be winning games,” Dwyer said. “So, it’s important to us to train intensely and then we’ll train the way that we play.”
Marcelino Moreno also spoke with the media after training. The midfielder has played a big part in the attacking group that has been playing well together and shown brilliant moments during the past few games.
Last week, Pineda was asked about the connection forming between Araújo and Almada, and the head coach made sure that Moreno was included in the group (as well as striker Ronaldo Cisneros). Moreno is an important player in the attack. He leads the team in assists (5) and is third on the team in key passes (17).
With Araújo returning from a hamstring injury that kept him off the pitch for several weeks, the dynamic group has started to have more games playing together. With more minutes, the attack is better understanding each other’s movements. Moreno credits that consistency with helping the team be more productive.
“It helps us a lot because we’re on the field together,” Moreno said. “We’re getting more minutes playing together and we can have a better understanding, so the minutes helps a lot.”
The grouping of Moreno, Almada, Araújo and Cisneros on the field has reaped benefits. The team has scored 10 goals in their last four matches, including all competitions, and those four players are responsible for scoring five of the team’s most recent six goals.
For the match against Nashville SC, Pineda was able to start the same starting XI as he did the match before on May 15 against New England Revolution. Having a consistent lineup match-to-match has not happened frequently this season, but it has helped the attacking players find some rhythm.
“I think now that we’re playing more together, the group has better chemistry,” Moreno said. “So, that can lead to more chances for us, and that’s the main difference we’re seeing.”
Whether the team can continue to score goals, enough goals to win games, Moreno feels confident.
“We know that we have the individual and collective quality to always be able to convert,” Moreno said. “We just have to do it, but I think that’s the strength of this team.”
During the competition at training on Tuesday, the attacking players were looking to score. At one point, Tyler Wolff flicked the ball ahead to Dwyer, who scored on a sure-footed shot. Dwyer then followed it up with another goal on a rebounding ball, sliding to lift the shot high into goal and over the goalkeeper. Later, Araújo took advantage of a drifting pass and finished it off with a left-footed shot in the corner.
Dwyer is fresh off scoring the game-tying goal against Nashville SC on Saturday that led to a hard-fought point on the road. He also scored a brace in the club’s third round match against Chattanooga FC in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Complementing Dwyer at the position are a few other strikers. There’s Cisneros, the Mexican player on loan from Chivas Guadalajara. Cisneros scored a hat trick in the match against Chicago Fire FC on May 7 that earned him MLS Player of the Week. There’s also Jackson Conway, who was part of training as well and rolled a ball nicely into goal during the small-sided games. Conway is a Homegrown player who’s scored four goals with Atlanta United 2 this season.
“They’re all fantastic players,” Dwyer said. “I think everyone can play a role whether it’s up top by themselves or with the two [strikers]. We’ve got a lot of options. A lot of young, exciting players and obviously, the MVP."
That MVP is of course Martínez, who won the league award in 2018 and is Atlanta United’s all-time leading goal scorer. Martínez is currently making his way back after having arthroscopic surgery to clean out some debris in his right knee. Last week, Martínez rejoined the team at training. On Tuesday, he was a full participant in the small-sided games and scored some goals, including a nice low-driven shot with his left foot.
Prior to the surgery, Martínez was off to a strong start this season. He scored two goals and recorded two assists and was the first Atlanta United player to pick up MLS Team of the Week honors after his Week 1 performance against Sporting Kansas City.
So, with Martínez getting back in the mix, the striker position for Atlanta United grows even stronger.
“We’re happy to have him back, and we’ll see what we can do with this group,” Dwyer said.