In the middle of taking questions after practice on Thursday, head coach Gonzalo Pineda suddenly had to leave. He trotted off, heading toward the far side of the pitch near the locker room where the team gathered in a huddle.

Members of the team brought out two cakes and sang “Happy Birthday” to midfielder Mo Adams and defender Brooks Lennon. After the song ended, their teammates encouraged the birthday boys to get a little bit closer to their cakes.

“Try it,” teammates encouraged. “Try the cake.”

Then, smack. Adams’ face went right into one cake, Lennon’s face into the other. Adams picked up a chunk of cake from the field and chased after one of the instigators, George Bello, trying to even the score. The team dispersed into a scene of brief chaos, teammates chasing each other, throwing cake, enjoying time together after a hard few days of training. George Campbell hooted, taking it all in.

Pineda has begun instituting new traditions, as we saw Tuesday when he invited more than 100 supporters to attend practice for the first time. And now, it seems like a new tradition has formed organically for his players.

It started with goalkeeper Brad Guzan last week, then midfielder Ronald Hernández on Tuesday. And today it continued with Lennon and Adams. The deluge of September birthdays has produced a new kind of post-practice routine involving cake – although no one knows exactly what flavor.

“No one gets cake because everything’s in their faces,” Pineda said.

Here are a few more observations from the Training Ground this week:

The Next Three

The past eight games have been the team’s best stretch of the season so far. Atlanta has won seven of those eight, including three in a row at home, and gained nine points in the table, which moved the team above the playoff line.

“The confidence is high,” Adams said after practice.

But it’s common in soccer for teams to go on good runs. It might even cause players to shift their mentality, perhaps sit back a little, and expect the same results. Pineda has been working to prevent that mentality. His message to the team has been about building off a good week, creating good vibes and getting better.

“We have done nothing yet,” Pineda said. “Let’s be humble.”

The focus now turns to the club’s next three games against Philadelphia, Miami and Montréal – all teams vying for a playoff spot. Up first is Philadelphia on Saturday. The matchup marks Atlanta’s first road trip in September and Pineda’s first time managing an away match for the club. He joined the team in D.C. on August 21 prior to officially taking over for interim head coach Rob Valentino.

“It’s massively important that we remain humble,” Pineda said. “Working hard, training hard, pressing – doing all the little things we’ve been doing to continue these good performances.”

Sports Science

Wednesday’s training session was heavy, according to Pineda, which led to some fatigue and a few sloppy moments in Thursday’s practice. Pineda put the team through drills that required players to complete a certain number of passes and ended the day with penalty kicks. Players reacted by encouraging each other to make sharper passes and ramp up the intensity.

“It wasn’t sharp, but the ideas of how we want to attack were there,” Pineda said.

But even a day after an intense training session, thanks to the priority he’s given to sports science, he’s gotten data that suggests players are adapting to his methodology and recovering better.

Pineda uses data analytics to track training sessions, and specifically mentioned Ryan Alexander, head of the sports science department at Atlanta United. The two have been working together to analyze the game and measure players’ performances.

“We have to read that data and make decisions based on that,” Pineda said.

Everything Goes Through The Midfield

The connectivity in the midfield was an emphasis in training in this week. When asked about the midfield’s identity, Adams replied that it boils down to their ability to dictate possession.

“You see our style of play,” Adams said. “Everything goes through the midfield.”

A connected midfield means being solid in the formation while also being fluid, so Adams said it’s been important for those players to understand their roles. Midfielders aren’t expected to drop back as far under Pineda, which allows them to break up plays in the middle, find pockets in the attack and deliver balls to the guys who can make a difference in the game.

One of those playmaking midfielders is Marcelino Moreno, who spoke to the media after practice on Thursday. Moreno had an impressive assist on Saturday against D.C. United when he made an incredible effort to cut past several D.C. defenders and lay it on a platter for Bello’s first goal of the season.

“I have the confidence in the coaching staff and all my teammates to be able to do stuff like that,” Moreno said.

Managing Minutes

Defender Miles Robinson sat out of Atlanta’s 3-2 win over D.C. United on September 18 but was practicing on Thursday. He played all 90 minutes for the U.S. men’s national team in their three World Cup qualifying matches earlier this month. The defender of the year candidate will be available for Philadelphia on Saturday.

“He’s very motivated after that little break,” Pineda said.

After practice, Pineda spoke about Josef Martínez as well. The striker didn’t participate in practice on Thursday but is continuing to stay active.

It’s uncertain whether Martínez will be available for the team’s next match. Pineda emphasized the importance of not rushing Martínez back, especially after a few weeks that included him playing international games for Venezuela. The head coach called it a “day-by-day situation” that the team will monitor over the next two days before determining his status for Saturday’s match.

“I know Josef, he wants to play every minute for this club,” Pineda said. “It’s just for me, I have to manage his minutes a little bit here and there as much as I can.”

Pineda Speaks With RDS

The team had a special group of observers at practice on Thursday. Members from the club’s Regional Development School were able to sit next to the fields and watch practice. Afterward, Pineda spent some time with the group. They conducted a 20-minute Q-and-A with the head coach, who walked away impressed with their knowledge and preparation before taking questions from the media.

A Diamond In Philadelphia

Atlanta is very familiar with its next opponent, the Philadelphia Union. The two teams have faced each other three times in 2021. They met twice in the Concacaf Champions League earlier this year. Philadelphia won 3-0 on April 27 and the two teams tied 1-1 on May 4. The last meeting was on June 20 in MLS competition. The result was a 2-2 draw.

Now, the two teams sit just one point apart in the Eastern Conference table.

“They have a very good side,” Adams said. “They’re able to use that formation pretty well, that diamond. When they get it going, it’s pretty effective.”

That diamond is Philadelphia’s 4-4-2 formation. Adams said it can leave opposing teams unsure whether to press or stay back. But Atlanta has been studying the way Philadelphia plays the diamond and knows the challenge that comes with facing an opponent competing for a playoff spot.

“We’re just going to go into the game trying to focus on ourselves and doing what we have to do,” Moreno said.

Training Photos: Week of September 20