After a brief glint of summer sunshine, the weather shifted this week, as Georgia weather is prone to do. Cobb County, where the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta United Training Ground is located, was under a freeze watch for most of the week. Overnight temperatures dipped into the 20s, bringing crisp air to the team’s morning training sessions.
The weather beckoned for knit hats, gloves and leggings. Training this week consisted of shorter, intense training sessions. On Tuesday, the group went through Rondos before moving nearby to run through what they call the “Gonzo” drill.
Then, the group moved to a larger polygon mapped out with field tape. In the middle were three goals facing different directions. During this drill, players went through short and intense intervals of play around 5-minutes long. Tyler Wolff made an aggressive takeaway. Jay Fortune corralled the ball and played a pass to Amar Sejdić who then tapped it in for a goal.
Here are some other observations and storylines from training in Marietta this week:
Taking it game by game
After three matches, Atlanta United is unbeaten on the season. It’s the best three-match start in club history, and heading into the fourth match week Atlanta United sits tied for first in the Eastern Conference table.
The solid start is a sign of the team’s overall understanding of how head coach Gonzalo Pineda wants his team to play. According to goalkeeper Brad Guzan, the group is showing a stronger grasp of the tactics and what the coaching staff is asking of them.
However, there’s still room for improvement and the execution on the pitch can still be perfected. The team routinely reviews video of their previous matches. Upon video sessions and watching back clips, they ask themselves how they can deal with certain situations more efficiently.
“You’re striving for perfection,” Guzan said. “So every play, every pass, every ball, a step this way, a step that way, how do we fine tune things. So that’s now the process.”
While the three-match unbeaten streak is a good feat for the club, it’s still very early in the season. In fact, when Pineda was told that statistic, he practically seemed unfazed.
“Honestly, for me, I’m just focusing game by game,” Pineda said. “Every game is different… every game presents different challenges. I’m not going to focus on beaten or unbeaten. At some point, every team loses. It’s just a matter of continuing with the development of the team and the ethos of the team, the culture of the team, the style of the team, the cohesion of the team.”
The next game that's on his mind is the one on Saturday against Portland Timbers at home. It’s a flashback of sorts to 2018 when the two clubs faced off for the MLS Cup. The last time the teams played each other at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta United won the championship and lifted the trophy.
But for Atlanta United’s head coach, the focus for the match is about getting better.
“It’s about game by game, progressing our game, and that’s always in my mind,” Pineda said. “Then hopefully, yes, we can start to get more of the best of these, the best of that, but that will come if we start to think game by game and focus on only one game at a time.”
It’s been a big week for Atlanta United’s Miles Robinson. The club’s center back helped his team earn their first clean sheet of the season last week at Charlotte FC, which also garnered a spot on MLS Team of the Matchday for Robinson. On March 14, he celebrated his 26th birthday. One day later, the U.S. men’s national team announced their callups for March camp and two Concacaf Nations League games. Robinson was named to the roster, which means he’ll rejoin the national team for the first time since his season-ending injury in 2022.
Robinson wasn’t available to the media this week, but a few players talked about him specifically. Juanjo Purata, who met with reporters on Tuesday (for the first time in English, which was excellent). Purata started each of Atlanta’s first three matches, alongside Robinson, so he was able to talk about their partnership as the two starting center backs.
“I think we’re very solid,” Purata said. “We have a lot of communication during the game, also in training. Day by day, we are getting stronger. And I think we’re on a good path, but we also want to keep going and keep working.”
On Thursday, Guzan also had the chance to speak about his teammate. Guzan and Robinson have been almost inextricably linked because their season-ending injuries last season came within three weeks of each other. Guzan knows all too well the type of recovery Robinson has been through. He said that Robinson’s looked really good in the first three games, but that he’s not at all surprised at the level the center back is playing at.
“I was never doubting the bigger, stronger, faster part,” Guzan said. “The part that’s really impressed me is his calmness on the ball and his ability to find passes and take the ball under pressure and find an outlet.”
Academy products and Ajani Fortune’s MLS Debut
To go along with a big week for Robinson, and MLS Player of the Matchday Caleb Wiley, it was also an important week for some Academy products. Luke Brennan, who signed his 2s contract last week, and Alan Carleton participated in training this week. Carleton, an Academy product who was part of the original class in 2016, signed his contract on Wednesday. Both of the club’s new signings for the 2s trained with the first team this week.
Another Academy product who had a big week was Ajani “Jay” Fortune. After becoming a mainstay for Atlanta United 2, Fortune signed a Homegrown contract with the first team in 2021. This past Saturday, Fortune made his MLS debut at Charlotte FC, entering the match as a substitute in second-half stoppage time. His minutes didn’t last very long, but Pineda has spoken very highly of Fortune and the 20-year-old midfielder has a positive outlook for what the future holds.
“This is one of the goals I had when I first joined the Academy was to be able to play with the first team in this type of environment, and I’m just glad that it’s paid off a little bit,” Fortune said. “So I’m happy to make my debut with this club, and I’m really thankful for it.”
Fortune is essentially using this time to learn and get better. He said that it’s about picking up the details that can make him a better player, talking to his teammates, asking questions, trying to give himself the best opportunities, and putting into practice the best piece of advice he’s been given:
“Just be ready to learn,” Fortune. “Be open-minded, be ready to learn and just work hard and go out. I think that’s key for me because there’s players here you can always learn something from, and there’s the coaching staff as well that’s always willing to help, so just be ready to learn and work hard.”