A friendly competition broke out toward the end of practice on Wednesday. Four upright red dummies against four players in red training tops. The dummies formed a wall a good 25 yards or so away from goal. Facing them were four Atlanta United players. The players rotated one at a time, spotting the ball on the mark 10 yards away from the placeholder defenders and taking a chance to curve it around the wall. The dummies took some hits, wobbling each time a ball struck one of them from close-range and smacked their plastic skin.
Marcelino Moreno, Ezequiel Barco, and Brooks Lennon each struck their dead ball. (Assistant coach Diego de la Torre jumped in there as well to take some kicks.) Then, it was Luiz Araújo’s turn. He stepped up and curved a beautiful ball past the keeper’s reach and into the upper right corner of the net.
What broke out from Araújo was a cheer with a pitch high enough to make it almost all the way to Kennesaw. He high-stepped, then flexed his arms and puffed out his chest like a professional wrestler.
“I always try to work with a smile,” the Brazilian said after training on Wednesday. “I’m a footballer. Everything I have in my life right now is thanks to football, so I give my happiness back to football.”
Araújo has fun scoring goals – perhaps even more fun competing with his teammates while doing so. When the friendly competition bled over into post-practice media availability, the Brazilian let out another whoop from the pitch at the exact moment defender Brooks Lennon was answering a question about him.
“That’s probably him screaming and yelling,” Lennon said, his back turned toward the pitch. “It looks like he’s having a lot of fun.”
And about that friendly competition -- did Araújo win?
“Of course,” he said.
Here are a few more observations from training on Wednesday:
Three Big Things
Head coach Gonzalo Pineda specified three keys he’s focused on during these two weeks of training between matches: mentality, competition and tactics.
Taking the temperature of the team’s mentality after a tough loss was his top priority and wanted to ensure that the team trained hard. Players, he observed, were very competitive this week, wanting to win even every little possession game. He noticed better behaviors in terms of counter pressure, immediate pressure and reaction times. And a stronger mentality has led to more intense competition.
“The competitive side for me is very important,” Pineda said. “I want a team that first of all competes at a high intensity and wants to win.”
With nearly three weeks of training with this group under his belt, Pineda said he’s gotten to know the players better and learned who might could go on the pitch when other players are out. At the same time, his players have gotten a better understanding of his philosophy and style of play.
“He demands a lot out of every single person,” Lennon said. “Whether you’re playing a lot, not playing at all, coming up from the academy to train with us – he expects a very high level of play.”
The Finishing Touch
After the Nashville loss, Pineda made a point that the team needed to work on finishing. Even though Atlanta dominated the match in possession and completed nearly 90 percent of its passes, the attackers couldn’t find the back of the net and finished without any goals.
Lately, training has involved a lot of finishing and crossing. Last week, the team competed in an 11v11 scrimmage that featured lots of goals. Pineda put them through drills that showcased pattern of play and ended by allowing players to get creative in the attack, which led to quality chances.
“It’s just I think a good opportunity to improve in the sharpness of the movements,” Pineda said. “And that will allow them to have a higher volume of chances. And then hopefully we can score more goals. But the quality I’ve seen, I’ve been very happy with."
Pineda also wanted to work on improving the midfield's connection and give players like Araújo and Barco better options. The coach designed specific sessions for the attacking players to gain confidence, help them see patterns and have success in the final third of the field.
“The chemistry between those attacking players is getting better every training session,” Pineda said. “You can see the connections and sometimes it’s just fun to watch them.”
On Araújo, the coach lit up when speaking about the striker, even offering to show members of the media clips of his goals from practice. It’s a positive sign that the player most hungry to get on the score sheet is scoring lots of goals at practice. The flashy striker has gotten close a few times, including a driven ball in the 23rd minute against Nashville that just missed, but has yet to record a goal or assist after three matches in MLS. But Araújo feels confident that Friday against Orlando could be his moment.
“I’ve been very close to scoring the last three matches,” Araújo said. “I’ve had chances, so I think this is the one that I’m going to be able to score."
Prime Assist Zone
The acronym “BAMM”, which stands for Atlanta’s four main attacking players, has started to stick for some Atlanta United fans. Whether "PAZ" will catch on the same way has yet to be seen. "PAZ", or prime assist zone, is a Pineda phrase used to describe areas on the field with the highest probability to turn into goals. For example, a long cross between two tall center backs is more difficult for a forward to deal with than tapping in a ball six yards from the goal.
“It’s way easier,” Pineda said. “It’s common sense but it’s also data that supports that when you cross from those areas you have more probability to score.”
Players so far seem to be taking to the new concept. Lennon said that getting a better understanding of those opportunistic areas should put him in a position to rack up some more assists. Currently at three, Lennon said he’s now set the goal for himself to get between 10-12 assists by the end of the season, a target his head coach was very happy to hear.
“I’m happy and pleased that Brooks brought that into the conversation,” Pineda said. “That means the message is right and they are looking for those opportunities to attack those areas.”
The Home Factor
After a demanding August that included, during one stretch, three games in seven days, Atlanta is looking forward to getting to play more matches at home. With 12 matches left on the schedule, seven of those will be at home. Four of their five September matches will be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“We have a lot of home games coming up,” Lennon said. “We need to be on the front foot and attacking and getting goals in order to climb up the table and make the playoffs.”
In his first week on the job, Pineda said that he’d like to be consistent with his lineups during the final months of the season. Only, the challenge at this point with doing that is not having all of his players available. Right now, four main pieces of Atlanta’s lineup are away from the club to compete for their national teams in the World Cup Qualifiers.
“I would like to be more consistent once I get consistency also in the players that I have and their availability,” Pineda said.
With the United States playing their last match in this leg of the World Cup Qualifying matches on Wednesday, it’s possible that Miles Robinson and George Bello will be available for Friday’s match against Orlando. Pineda said that U.S. players will need to be assessed but will have a better chance to see minutes given their longer recovery time than Josef Martínez and Ronald Hernández who will be available for Venezuela’s match on Thursday.
What does that mean if Martínez isn't available to start? Pineda said there’s competition for the role between forwards such as Jackson Conway and Erick Torres. It could also mean relying on a different formation than what the team uses when Martínez plays. He mentioned the possibility of playing a false nine, a tactic that leans on putting a less conventional player up top who can drop back into the midfield often. The team practiced this false nine formation this week along with two others: a 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-2-1. Pineda said he’ll make a final decision after he watches film of training and reflects on Thursday’s session.
The Pineda Standard
As Pineda continues to set the tone for his organization during the opening weeks of his tenure, we continue to learn more about his personality and values. Pineda described himself as a man with different management styles. Some days he’s direct, some days he’s critical. Some days, he gives the players more positivity. But no matter what management style he takes on, Pineda stays true to himself. He's a social person who puts his players first, and what matters most to him is the connection he has with his players.
“The main thing for me is having good relationships,” he said. “Stuff like that, for me, connecting with them, understanding where they come from will help me to manage them better on the field."