The skies over the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground shifted this week from cloudy and grey on Tuesday to sunny and clear by Thursday. The discordant weather mimicked the mixed emotions of the Atlanta United players following last week’s performances.
The 5-Stripes started off the double matchweek Wednesday with an impressive 4-0 win over Colorado Rapids at home before drawing 3-3 against Chicago Fire FC on Saturday. Picking up the point on the road would have felt more satisfying had the group not given up two leads within the match to end at an even score line.
In both training sessions that were open to the media this week, Atlanta emphasized that from match to match, minute one to minute 90, they need to find consistency and maintain their sharpness.
“I think we got so excited on Wednesday, we won at home strong,” defender Ronald Hernandez said Tuesday. “And that’s the thing, in the locker room we talked about how we’ve got to be consistent in our performance. We’ve got to check in, everyone, what we can do better.”
Staying locked in
The team spent parts of Tuesday’s training with this in mind, as they worked on situations in what Hernandez called “emergency mode.” In confined space and with high pressure, they practiced defending crosses and second balls similar to the play that resulted in Chicago’s last goal.
The feeling in the locker room on Saturday was not new for this Atlanta group. The match against Chicago was their third road draw, and Atlanta was leading at one point in all of them before conceding the tying goal.
These draws feel like losses for the team, especially when the game-tying goals come late in the match. Chicago scored their third goal in the 89th minute on Saturday, which was the seventh goal Atlanta has conceded in the 89th minute or later this season in all competitions.
“It was definitely a bit frustrating,” Machop Chol said. “I feel like we deserve more. It’s kind of been a trend of us not being able to close out games. It’s just trying to find a way to make sure we can secure points.”
While the team has conceded many late goals, they’ve also scored nearly as many during that same time frame, meaning they have the ability to remain physically consistent. The team agreed that it was more of a mental lapse that has led to allowing these late goals.
“I think over the course of the season, we’ve given up a lot of soft goals,” defender Miles Robinson said. “Goals off mistakes or lack of focus or even just lucky chances. It’s just a matter of keeping consistency, whether it’s in our training, in the team that we put out. If we do that, I think we have a bright future.”
An issue that might have held the team back from finding consistency recently is their inconsistent lineup. Atlanta’s starting XI has looked different for nearly every match this season due to multiple reasons.
Three different goalkeepers have started in goal for the team. A hamstring injury caused Giorgos Giakoumakis to miss two matches and come off the bench the last three after starting his first five. Multiple players have missed matches due to international duty, including Caleb Wiley, who is currently playing in the FIFA U-20 World Cup for the United States.
Head coach Gonzalo Pineda said when he decides how to attack in each match, specifically in the midfield, it often depends on who is available at that time. Midfielders Franco Ibarra and Amar Sejdić were keystones in the starting lineup earlier this year, but they fell out of the rotation with a suspension and a calf injury.
“I can use different players for different situations,” Pineda said. “I felt that at the beginning of the season, we had Ibarra and Amar, and then the injuries, suspensions and all this, it was broken. So it depends on what I have available and the different ways to use them.”
For the back line, the absence of goalkeeper Brad Guzan was definitely felt since his MCL injury sidelined him last month. Fortunately, Guzan has recently returned to training, and his voice was certainly one of the loudest on the field this week.
Despite the changes in goal and the rest of the lineup, Robinson said the mentality of the defenders, as well as the whole team, has stayed the same.
“I think everyone’s got the same mindset here,” Robinson said. “It’s win the most games as possible, win trophies. Everyone understands this club is capable of that, it’s just a matter of everyone buying into the culture, that winning mentality. I think we’re close to the team we can be, but it’s definitely a long season, so it’s about peaking at the right time.”
On the road to Orlando
Atlanta will wrap up this full week of training by heading down to Florida to face Eastern Conference opponent Orlando City SC at Exploria Stadium on Saturday. The 5-Stripes are fourth in the standings, just three points more than Orlando, who are sitting in the seventh spot.
Similar to Atlanta, Orlando is an attack-minded team that also likes to maintain possession of the ball. Orlando forward Ercan Kara, who is on a three-match scoring streak, was one of their many offensive players that Pineda listed as who they need to watch for on Saturday.
“Kara is very good in the transition at times,” Pineda said. “They actually look for him in the build up a lot. So, we just need to play our normal game, where we try to be good in possession, attack the final third, try to expose them in certain areas and then be good in the transition moments.”
After watching film from the Chicago match and in preparation for facing Orlando, the training for Atlanta was all about defending and winning back the ball starting from their defensive third. In different drills, the group practiced clearing free kicks and quickly playing forward to start the counterattack.
Both sides will be hungry for the three points this weekend. Atlanta is looking to end their six-match winless road streak, while Orlando is wanting to continue their momentum after a major 3-1 win against their Florida rival Inter Miami CF. Atlanta is already preparing mentally for this challenge and knows what it will take to earn the three points.
“They like to play, but so do we,” Robinson said. “It’s going to be a battle between possession-based teams. They definitely got some good players. We’re both going to be fighting for possession. Hopefully we can be on the front foot and control the game.”