On Thursday, the team split up to end practice with a little competition as it normally does. Only this time, the teams were a little uneven. It was the goalkeepers taking on… well, everyone else.
In place of defenders were two large inflatables. The dummies stood stagnant around the six-yard box to help the attacking players visualize where the defense would be positioned. The Atlanta players, everyone except the keepers, gathered in a herd at the top of the 18-yard box.
A player kicked the ball out wide to one side. The attacking midfielder or winger crossed the ball into the box where two attacking players were running in looking to score.
Another went in from the right side. Then, they’d run it back.
In the first round, crosses were on the ground. Then assistant coach Rob Valentino told players that service had to come from the air.
The banter between the two sides soon heated up. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan showed some personality, poking fun at his opposing attackers.
“That’s good defending!” Guzan called out when midfielder Jürgen Damm’s cross went straight to one of the large dummies.
Defender Brooks Lennon sent in several nice crosses. Defender Alan Franco was on the end of one; his shot banged off the post. On one of Lennon’s crosses, this one nearly flawless, the forward couldn’t find the back of the net. Lennon cried out a lighthearted shout.
There were plenty of goals during the drill. Midfielder Santiago Sosa scored on a textbook header on a cross that Damm served through the air. Defender Anton Walkes and striker Jackson Conway drilled goals that the goalkeeper couldn’t slap away. Lennon’s cross found forwards running into the box more than once, including one sure-footed strike from Erick Torres.
The idea for Thursday’s drill came from the assistant coaches. They were looking for a way to keep the team competitive and sharp while also decreasing the team’s work load. Head coach Gonzalo Pineda mentioned this week players performed at a high level physically.
The goal of the drill was for the team to work on getting crosses into dangerous areas and sending numbers into the box to try and score. The team finished an intense week spending time on the clinical finishing that Pineda said was lacking in the last match.
“We achieved the objective there,” Pineda said.
Managing The Moment
The team has gone two weeks without a match due to the international break but has kept focus on in-game scenarios. During this stretch, players spent a good deal of time studying film to identify positive moments in their play and things they can improve on.
“We’ve really watched a lot about ourselves, which I think is very important this late in the season,” Lennon said.
On the pitch, Pineda has introduced scenarios in training to allow the team to practice managing the moment. The head coach put his team through situations in 11v11 games, going through how to defend when it has an advantage and how to respond when the team concedes a goal.
“We have a very young team, talented team, but it’s young,” Pineda said. “And sometimes what happens with youth is that they don’t have those experiences before where they had to manage different situations, tough situations in tough environments.”
One of those tough situations came during the road trip to Philadelphia on September 25. The team lacked intensity, struggling to create chances in its first away game in four matches.
Then again, during its next away match in Montreal, the team played fairly well. However, it struggled to maintain its lead once it went up 1-0 at the start of the second half. Montreal came roaring back and scored two goals in five minutes.
During training, the team worked on situations similar to what it faced in those matches, focusing on the mentality and approach.
“The culture here is just trying to manage the momentum,” Pineda said. “Trying to understand the importance of these three weeks and why we need to fight, why we need to compete, why we need to fight for each other, and it’s just about creating that mindset.”
Preparing To Play Without No. 7
Josef Martínez did not participate in practice on Thursday. Pineda confirmed that the striker is day-to-day.
“We will see where he’s at tomorrow and make a decision,” Pineda said.
Being without its leading scorer isn’t new to the team. Martínez missed two matches in the last month due to either international playing duties with Venezuela or getting rest as a precautionary measure.
The two results without Martínez were very different. Atlanta beat Orlando City 3-0 at home on September 10 but lost to Philadelphia on the road 1-0 on September 25.
Preparing for the possibility of his absence, Pineda said the team practiced different options. Players reviewed a variety of possible formations, including a false nine. They also practiced sticking with a true no. 9, using Torres in Martínez’s place.
“We work enough at different possibilities,” Pineda said.
The team will have Miles Robinson and George Bello available for Saturday’s match in Toronto. The two defenders returned to the Training Ground on Thursday from playing with the U.S. national team in the October World Cup Qualifiers. Both players will be evaluated before determining playing time for Saturday.
Closing Out Strong
The next three weeks are vital to Atlanta United’s season. The team has six matches remaining on the schedule. Three of those matches will be on the road.
And the team is aware of what that means at this point in the season.
“The last two times on the road haven’t been good enough, so we got three home and three away and those three away we really need to pick up points and do everything we can to climb up the table,” Lennon said.
Currently, Atlanta has 39 points in the table, one spot below the playoff line in the Eastern Conference standings. And the team believes, once it fixes some things, it can be dangerous.
“You see the quality that we have in this team and there’s no reason why we can’t get in the playoffs and make a deep push,” Lennon said.
To close out practice on Thursday, Pineda took questions from the media as he normally does. However, it took a little bit longer for him to make his way over to the reporters. Midfielders Ezequiel Barco, striker Luiz Araújo and Sosa stayed behind to practice penalty kicks. But soon after they left, Pineda remained on the pitch talking with Damm and Torres.
They sat on the pitch and talked for over 20 minutes. It looked like the two players could be getting instructions from their head coach, but it turned out the three were talking about something else. In fact, they weren’t talking about soccer at all.
“I always want to have a good relationship with the players,” Pineda said. “That is key for me, not just as a player-coach relationship but from human to human, just sharing experiences and us knowing each other better.”