Atlanta United headed to the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground on Monday for a short training session under partly cloudy skies. The day prior, the team made the long trip back from Canada, where they defeated CF Montréal 1-0 at Stade Saputo.
The 5-Stripes will be back on the road for Wednesday’s match at New England, hence the condensed practice. The group is focused on recovery this week, dealing with three matches within eight days.
“Today, it was an extremely light session for the guys,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said on Monday. “Yesterday was a bit of recovery when we got in from Montreal. It’s hot and humid in Montreal, and the elements certainly took their toll. It’s always hard when you’re on the road when it’s one game a week, and now you throw another one in there. It’s going to be a challenge, but one that we need to try to rise to the occasion.”
With two important matches approaching, head coach Gonzalo Pineda and newly acquired midfielder Tristan Muyumba joined Guzan to speak with media after training. Here are some of the main storylines from Monday:
Continuing the challenge
The 2-0 win over Philadelphia Union and Saturday’s match at Montreal marked the first time this season Atlanta has recorded two consecutive shutouts. It was also the first time the team won two consecutive matches since beating Charlotte and Portland back in March.
The six points moved Atlanta up to fifth in the Eastern Conference standings, only three points away from the second spot.
Despite the huge wins, Pineda does not want the group to become too excited about their recent performances. He emphasized that the team has to continue to strive to be better in order to continue seeing success.
“It gave us the understanding that we’re heading in the right direction,” Pineda said. “Now, it’s more like how can we progress it into not just two shutouts, but three? You have to find ways to continue challenging the team. If you’re in the comfort zone, you don’t challenge them. Now the challenge is, we did pretty good in two games, one at home, one away. Can we do the same a third time against a team that offers different challenges?”
Playing matches on the road is definitely a challenge for MLS teams, but it has been especially tough for Atlanta this season. Saturday’s win was just Atlanta’s second road win of the year since the 3-0 victory in Charlotte. Their road record now sits at 2-4-5 (W-L-T).
With a big conference matchup against New England at Gillette Stadium, Pineda said they need to keep that level mindset in order to extend their win streak to three.
“Same as when we conceded six goals or four away, nothing is too bad in those moments,” he said. “There are positives in those situations. Say now, not everything is perfect. There are still things we can improve. It’s about having confidence in our style, our game, our mentality, but not being overconfident.”
For the last two matches, Atlanta has been playing with three center backs as opposed to just two as they have been using all season. Pineda said the formation switch was made to combat the number of goals conceded (35; the second most in the league).
In those two matches, not only has Atlanta kept two clean sheets, but they allowed both Philadelphia and Montréal only one shot on target. Against Philadelphia, the 5-Stripes had nine blocked shots, the most in club history in MLS play.
“That’s a willingness and desire to defend,” Guzan said. “That’s a willingness to go the extra yard, the commitment to put ourselves on the line to block shots, to close the ball down. Along with the back three, especially this past weekend, our midfielders ran their socks off in terms of closing wide players, stepping up to the ball, dropping in when runners are coming.”
The stats show that the formation change has certainly improved Atlanta defensively, but Pineda said it also impacts the team offensively. He said the spacing creates more passing lanes to form diamonds within the defense and midfield, while also giving more security in front of goal.
“I really like the build up with three,” Pineda said. “Most of the time it gives you more or better spacing because you always have a sweeper. You always have a diagonal pass backwards that can open up some lateral passes. And I think it’s more secure because you’re not that expanded as we did with two center backs opening up the width of the 18.”
Pineda said he likes the way the back three has worked so far and it is likely to stay, but the defense will continue to adjust their tactics depending on the opponent.
Midfielder Tristan Muyumba attended his first post-training media session on Monday since officially joining Atlanta United last week. Muyumba has spent most of his career in his home country of France, including his most recent club French Ligue 2 side EA Guingamp. However, he said the decision to come to America, specifically to Atlanta United, was fairly easy.
“It’s a big club of MLS,” Muyumba said. “When I spoke with the coach, with Carlos (Bocanegra), it showed me more confidence, more attraction. So, for me, it’s easy to make the choice.”
He has only trained individually so far as the club awaits the receipt of his International Transfer Certificate (ITC) and P-1 Visa. For now, he is settling into his new home, getting accustomed to his new teammates and preparing for his first MLS appearance.
“We’ll have to see him with the whole squad, but he looks good,” Pineda said. “He seems to be a very nice guy, very approachable, very humble. His English is pretty good. I think he’s going to have a very, very good integration with the team. We’re happy on him being here and now looking forward to the next steps to making him available.”