TrainingNotebook-5.18.22

It was a sight for sore eyes at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground.

The club’s all-time leading scorer, the fastest player in MLS history to score 100 goals, was back training with Atlanta United. On May 7, Josef Martínez returned roughly six weeks after having arthroscopic surgery to clean out some debris in his right knee.

“Josef is a really important player for this team, obviously on the field and also off the field for the group,” defender Alan Franco said. “He’s an important player for us to have, so we’re very happy to have him back at training.”

Martínez joined the team for rondos and passing drills. Then, the full squad broke up. Most of the weekend starters went inside the facility and Martínez went to the far side of the pitch to work with fitness coach Jack Kimber and director of sports performance Ryan Alexander on some individual fitness.

The remaining players stayed on for possession games and a small-sided competition, led mostly by assistant coaches Diego de la Torre and Rob Valentino. During the competition, teams took turns moving the ball fast in transition play, getting quick shots off on goal.

The competition put young goalkeepers Justin Garces and Rocco Ríos Novo on the spot and the two made some great plays. Garces dove to block Emerson Hyndman’s shot, then leapt to his feet to block another. Ríos Novo denied Dom Dwyer before conceding an expertly placed shot in the upper corner from Mikey Ambrose.

After the competition, Valentino brought the players together to conclude practice with a huddle. Then, Tyler Wolff stayed behind to step inside the goal while Amar Sejdić took a few direct free kicks. Finally, the goalkeepers worked on clearances. All the while, Martínez was still on the far side of the pitch and was one of the last players to leave the field.

Here are a few more insights and observations from training this week.

Revenge Game In The Music City

The team is coming off a demanding week that started with a 4-1 win over Chicago FC and a 2-2 draw to New England Revolution at home. In between, the team also played a midweek match in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

On May 11, Atlanta United traveled to GEODIS Park looking to steal a victory and knock the home team out of U.S. Open Cup competition at their brand-new venue. Atlanta was close to achieving just that, having a two-goal lead at halftime and leading late into second-half stoppage time. However, Nashville SC pressed and found the late equalizer. Nashville scored in the first extra period and outlasted the 5-Stripes 3-2 to advance to the Round of 16.

Now, Atlanta United makes its second trip to Nashville SC this season for a nationally televised MLS matchup on Saturday, May 21. Just 10 days separate the meetings between the two sides, and the loss is fresh on the minds of Atlanta players.

“It’s a game we’ve been looking forward to since last Wednesday,” striker Ronaldo Cisneros said. “So even though they eliminated us from the [U.S. Open] Cup, we see it a little bit of a revenge game. Despite being eliminated, we really want to win and win the games that we have in front of us. So that’s our focus and what we’re working towards.”

With Nashville SC moving into the Western conference this season, this is the only time Atlanta United sees them in MLS play and Nashville will have the home field advantage. The club’s new venue, GEODIS Park, opened at the beginning of May. The home side has yet to lose there, so the 5-Stripes will be focused on ruining that streak for the regional rival.

“Every day we’re working and preparing in different ways for the next opponent we’re going to play,” Franco said. “So, even though that was a loss there, we showed what this team is. We’re a young team, we’re going to keep working hard and give our best against Nashville.”

Lineup Changes

Player availability has been a challenge for Atlanta to have consistency so far in 2022, and head coach Gonzalo Pineda has started a different XI almost every match. Earlier this season, some players were called up to international duty for the World Cup Qualifying matches. The team has also had a run of bad luck with injuries, including injuries to veterans Ozzie Alonso and Brad Guzan who were moved to the season-ending injury list.

However, the team’s depth and young roster has allowed it to be resilient. New leaders are starting to emerge, such as Matheus Rossetto, the midfielder from Brazil who took up the captain’s armband for the first time in club history on May 11 against Nashville SC.

“It can be difficult,” Franco said of the rotating lineups. “But we’re a young team and we’re always training 100 percent so that the next person can come in, in any case of emergency. We have guys who are able to step in, and I think that you’ve seen that with the injuries that we’ve had. That’s something that’s good for the group, that we always have these players ready to come in, in any situation.”

When asked the same question, Cisneros alluded to a specific example: the injury to center back Miles Robinson. An MLS Best XI award winner last season, Robinson has been a leader for Atlanta United. When Guzan ruptured his Achilles tendon and was moved to the season-ending injury list, Robinson took up the captain’s armband.

However, Robinson suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in the 4-1 win over Chicago Fire FC on May 7. Pineda sent on Alex De John as his replacement, and for the next MLS match against New England Revolution, De John started at center back.

“I think that speaks to the quality that we have on this team and in the depth, which I think is a big strength for us – that we know that we always have those players who are working hard to come in,” Cisneros said.

Good Things Ahead

Going into Saturday’s matchup in Nashville, Atlanta United sits in seventh place toward the middle of the Eastern Conference standings with 15 points. The team is currently riding a 13-match streak of going unbeaten at home.

The team has shown brilliance lately, especially from individual performers. For two consecutive weeks, Atlanta United has had a player represent the club on the league’s Team of the Week. On Monday, midfielder Thiago Almada earned the honor for his goal and assist against New England. The week before, Cisneros earned a spot for his first-half hat trick against Chicago Fire FC. Cisneros was also named MLS Player of the Week for the performance. It was the fourth time in club history that an Atlanta United player has received the award.

“We know that we’ve lost some points or otherwise we’d be higher up the table, but the most important thing is always the group,” Cisneros said. “If we continue to perform the way that we are and stay on this path, then you know there’s good things ahead for us.”

Following Saturday’s match in Nashville, the club will get the chance to continue its home unbeaten streak and rack up some points when it hosts two consecutive MLS matches at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The team will also play at home on June 14 when it hosts the current first-place club in Liga MX, CF Pachuca, for the the inaugural American Family Insurance Cup.

So with the upcoming stretch, and Martínez working his way back from injury, there’s a lot for fans of Atlanta United to look forward to this summer.

“As players, we’re also upset that we haven’t been able to give the victories to the fans because they’re supporting us every game and they deserve those wins from us,” Franco said. “So what I can say is we’re working hard to try and turn the page and to try to give the fans those victories that they deserve.”