Tuesday was an eventful day at the Training Ground with head coach Gonzalo Pineda celebrating his 39th birthday. The team commemorated the special day, but for the most part kept its focus on preparing for its next match against New York City FC. At training, players went through keep away drills, walked through tactical scenarios and ended with a competitive scrimmage that included defender Alan Franco and midfielder Amar Sejdić as the goalkeepers.
The game Wednesday is the first of three for Atlanta at home. The team is looking to continue to ride the momentum from a 2-0 win on the road against Toronto into the regular season’s final stretch.
“This is the type of moment where you got to start to gain momentum coming into the playoffs and coming into bigger games,” defender Miles Robinson said.
Robinson was one of four players who were the points of focus at training on Tuesday:
Josef Martínez was a full participant in Tuesday’s practice. The striker missed the last match as a precautionary measure to rest a tight hamstring.
Martínez was active and appeared to be moving well, taking part and scoring goals during the scrimmage. Pineda said Martínez is all clear and available for Wednesday’s match, but will continue to monitor the situation day-to-day.
“We’ll wait and do what’s best for the team,” Pineda said.
The head coach touched briefly on his relationship with Martínez, how he’s been making an effort to guide his play. Pineda communicates with his striker constantly not only to check in on his physical well-being but continue to set him up for success on the pitch.
“He’s a fantastic forward,” Pineda said. “I want to teach Josef also how to move to get enough chances.”
Midfielder Marcelino Moreno sat out of the team’s last match heading into the international break on Oct. 2 against Montreal. Pineda wanted to manage his load and give Moreno some rest.
The rest seemed to do Moreno good. He came back against Toronto and was very active in the attack, taking seven shots, four on goal, and touching the ball 78 times. In stoppage time, Moreno slid a diagonal shot across the box for his seventh goal of the season to secure the win for Atlanta.
The performance earned Moreno a spot on MLS Team of the Week.
“He’s like an artist – he’s shy, but on the field he can do a Picasso,” Pineda said. “That’s what I love about Marcelino. He’s an artist and he’s very good at what he does.”
Moreno’s celebration after he scored the goal in Toronto caught the attention of some. He grabbed his jersey at the shoulders to lift up and highlight the name on the back.
Pineda described it as Moreno’s “Here I Am” moment.
“That’s the message and I love that in a good way that he wants to say 'I’m here and I’m taking the responsibility to be an important player for this franchise,' ” Pineda said.
Moreno’s versatility is helping Atlanta in the team’s final stretch. His ability to play on the flank and on the inside creates fluidity for the attack. And it’s partly why Moreno is Atlanta’s second-leading scorer so far on the season.
Midfielder Ezequiel Barco was another hot topic of conversation on Tuesday. The midfielder received a red card against Toronto, which means he’ll be unavailable to play in the club’s next match.
Atlanta appealed the penalty. On Tuesday, MLS announced that the appeal was denied.
“We will respect as always the resolution of MLS and whatever they decide is okay,” Pineda said.
The red card came in the 84th minute. It got a little heated when Toronto defender Auro Jr. came in for a tackle on Barco. The play was reviewed by the referees and both players were sent off the pitch for violent conduct.
Barco has been one of the most consistent players for Atlanta. Prior to Saturday, he played over 1000 consecutive minutes and started 12 consecutive matches, going all the way back to his call-up to play with Argentina at the Tokyo Olympics.
He’s also having the best season of his career with Atlanta United. The midfielder has recorded seven goals and seven assists, both career bests. Barco was an active playmaker in the team’s win over Toronto. His dribbling and passing with defender George Bello set up Luiz Araújo’s goal in the 45th minute.
With the ruling not going in Barco’s favor, the team is prepared with other options on the pitch.
“It could be good if we can have Barco,” Pineda said. “But if we have to bring someone else, the next man up and we will try to deal with that.”
Robinson was available to the media on Tuesday, managing to avoid the mess from coach’s birthday celebration.
Robinson is quietly making a strong case for Defender of the Year. He continues to be one of the best in MLS at duels won. He comes up time and time again for Atlanta’s back line and has been a key part in Atlanta’s nine clean sheets so far this season.
He had a game-high seven clearances in the Toronto match.
The Atlanta center back is becoming a main stay for the U.S. Men’s National Team and attributes some of his success to the experience he’s getting playing in international competition. Robinson was called up to join the squad again for the October World Cup Qualifiers. He started two of USA’s three matches.
“It’s been a great experience,” Robinson said. “I’m enjoying every moment of it so I’m just trying to take it in and live in the moment.”
Although there will be another round of games for the U.S. in November, Robinson is focused and present for the current role he has in Atlanta – in fact, when it comes to the future, he hasn’t even given it much thought.
“I don’t know what I’m having for dinner,” Robinson said.