A new week for Atlanta United began on Wednesday with a full training session that was open to media. The team started a fresh matchweek with an intense and focused session designed on learning from the defensive lapse that led to a last-gasp equalizer against Toronto FC.
Atlanta United is coming off back-to-back road trips against New York City FC and Toronto FC. The group brought two points home to Atlanta in total but very nearly earned more. In both matches, Atlanta United scored the go-ahead goal in the second half only to later concede the equalizer.
This trend focused the players on Wednesday as head coach Gonzalo Pineda worked them through closing out matches and defending more tightly.
“The next step, as a team, is to go into away games getting points because we’re good enough,” defender Andrew Gutman said. “We’re one of the better teams in the league, I truly believe that. We don’t want to go into away games thinking, ‘Oh, let’s just get out of here with a draw.’ No, we want three points. We want to win our way and also win convincingly.”
Thiago Almada along with Ozzie Alonso were training with the team. Giorgos Giakoumakis, who came off early during the Toronto match with an apparent injury, was doing some individual work. We’ll know more about his status for Sunday’s home match against Chicago Fire on Friday when Pineda meets with the media.
For now, here are some storylines and observations from Atlanta United training:
Staying in shape
At training, the team participated in some small-sided games on the far side of the pitch. With one side possessing, the group worked on stringing together passes. When the team with the ball completed eight passes, they earned a point.
An area of emphasis on Wednesday, shown with this drill, was the team maintaining its shape on the pitch. Keeping a diamond shape in the midfield allows for a more dynamic approach. On the attacking side, the team can break lines through the middle. With defending, it helps condense the field and prevent through balls, like the pass that led to Toronto’s second goal on Saturday.
Maintaining a consistent shape throughout a full 90-minute match will help the team close out games where they have the lead.
“I think it’s just staying locked in, understanding the moments of the game a little bit more,” Gutman said. “It’s almost like a good problem to have. You’re winning a lot of games, you’re putting yourself in great situations. Now, it’s becoming a good team to becoming an elite team.”
Although the group is disappointed to not earn more points in either of the last two matches, the team hasn’t lost their focus. Wednesday was spent assessing and learning from the previous match before turning the page to prepare for the next opponent. The next match for Atlanta United will be Sunday, the first Sunday match of the season, when they host Chicago Fire at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“For us, it was very tough to draw in the way we did because both the goals were scored at the end of each half,” midfielder Santiago Sosa said. “But it’s soccer, so we know those things can happen. We just have to be more attentive moving forward.”
Defending to the death
For the last part of training on Wednesday, the team held what Pineda called a tournament – or essentially two games of 5v5 on a condensed field. After a few minutes of play, the teams would switch and go up against a new opponent.
The pace was fast as players were encouraged to score and move the ball quickly. In the last 30 seconds, the scoring opened up. The competing sides went through what it’s like to defend hard for the final moments. During this stage, we saw center back Juanjo Purata double down and slide to block a shot. Fullback Brooks Lennon was buzzing around with his usual high energy, active in his movements. Overall, players were aggressive, intent on not giving up goals, especially late in the round.
Defending in the dying moments of matches has been an area where Atlanta United is looking to improve. In last weekend’s match in Toronto, the visitors gave up two goals that both came in the final moments of the half. The first was in the 43rd minute when Atlanta United held a 1-0 lead. Then the equalizer, which Toronto FC scored in the 94th minute, robbed Atlanta United from three points on the road.
“We know getting a draw in this league isn’t a bad result because it’s hard to win on the road,” Sosa said. “But that being said, you’re right in the way we did it. We felt like it was a bitter result for us.”
As Sosa said, players were disappointed to walk away with a draw because giving up a goal that late made it feel more like a loss. In response, the work has been put into defending and protecting the ball during those critical moments, especially when Atlanta has a lead.
“For us, it's just those final moments staying more locked in, maybe giving up a little bit of space in the middle third to really solidify the middle to low block and just defend our lives,” Gutman said.
First career goal for Machop Chol
One of the brights spots for Atlanta United this past weekend was Machop Chol. The 6-foot-2 forward came on as a second-half substitute on Saturday against Toronto FC. In the 76th minute, Chol scored the second goal of the match for Atlanta United. The finish was the first career MLS goal for Chol.
After the match, Chol acknowledged it was a special, and emotional moment for him. And his teammates were able to celebrate alongside him.
“I was very happy for him for two reasons because one, it helped the team and helped us get the result. And also, I’m very happy for him to get his first goal. So, personally it made me feel really happy,” Sosa said.
As a late sub, Chol came into the match and made an instant impact. His versatility on the pitch makes him elusive. Against Toronto, he played the role of a second forward, creating a second line in Atlanta United’s attack. And the move paid off, as Atlanta United found what was very nearly the game-winner with Chol’s goal.
“I think Chop is a player who can play in a variety of those attacking positions as a midfielder, as a winger, as a forward,” Sosa said. “He has different characteristics. So I think when he went in, we knew we had to be aware and to play based off of those skills. But he’s a player that when he comes on he can provide a lot of space and good movement on the field.”
Among those who celebrated on the pitch with Chol after his goal was Gutman. After he playfully lifted himself onto Chol’s shoulders when he went toward the sideline to celebrate, Gutman advised his teammate to cherish the moment.
“I told him after the game that’s something that he’ll remember for the rest of his life,” Gutman said. “Chop’s always been a great player. I think he’s been a little unlucky with injuries and certain situations over the years, but especially this preseason, he had an amazing preseason. He stayed healthy, he’s worked hard. He’s getting opportunities, and he’s playing really well in them. I think he just needs to continue to grow, continue to work and he can impact the game even more. He can come in and score almost every time with how shifty is, how he gets in great pockets. So, I’m really excited for him throughout the year.”