The first matchday of 2023 is in the books.
Last week, in the leadup to the home opener, it had a first-day-of-school feeling to it. There was a lot of anticipation and excitement for Atlanta United’s first match of the MLS regular season. And Saturday’s opener did not disappoint. Atlanta United finished the match in thrilling fashion behind a history-making brace from Thiago Almada in second-half stoppage time to rally and beat San Jose Earthquakes 2-1.
With three points in the table, and the first match day behind them, this week feels like we’re starting to settle into the season. Granted, there’s still a lot of excitement and anticipation for Saturday. Atlanta United hosts Toronto FC in the club’s first Eastern Conference test of the season.
This week, two days of training were open to the media, and on Tuesday we got to see the entire session. Players went through passing drills in absolutely gorgeous weather. Then, they broke out into competitive games, 1v1 then 2v2 to work on defending in transition. During this section, center back Noah Cobb made a nice 1v1 move on his defender then curled in a beautiful shot into the upper right corner. Cobb then set up Luke Brennan on his next turn for a shot.
During the 2v2 games, captain Brad Guzan played defenders quickly so they could get into their counterattack. For the last portion of training, teams continued their competition with some 5v5. Goalkeeper Clément Diop made back-to-back saves on Andrew Gutman. On the other end, Franco Ibarra aggressively took the ball away then scored on a nice, bending ball.
The open portion of Thursday’s session was shorter (and more rainy), but we got to hear from head coach Gonzalo Pineda. Here’s what else came out of the sessions at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground this week:
Pros and cons from Matchday 1
Atlanta United’s head coach said there were many positives to the team’s performance in the season opener. First of all, he was very happy that the team dominated possession. It might be easy to overlook that statistic, but it’s something that Atlanta and its head coach don’t take for granted.
It’s a signature of Pineda that he likes his teams to possess the ball effectively. Last season, Atlanta United led the league with 57 percent possession on the season. On Saturday, Atlanta United once against out-possessed the opponent, 60.5 percent compared to the visitors’ 39.5 percent.
“That’s a good sign of us having a good mentality on trying to dominate the game in the way we want,” Pineda said.
There were some key takeaways from the match against San Jose Earthquakes where Pineda says the team needs to improve. Pineda described that the Quakes played in a low block, which at times gave Atlanta United trouble. So this week at training, the group worked specifically on creating better patterns and understanding movements better and spaces on the field.
“It’s always a work in progress on that,” Pineda said. “That’s being a footballer, defending any kind of space. So, it’s always a work in progress but we are trying to send the right message to the players on understanding that.”
Marca en ataque
Pineda was asked how he’d assess the way his team defended in transition. In the past, Pineda has used the term “active defending” to describe this quality, but on Thursday he suggested the concept translates better in Spanish. The phrase is “marca en ataque,” which essentially means marking while you’re attacking and making sure players are aware of the space around them.
“For me, the way we build and the way we start to create our chances dictates how we’re going to regain the ball after that,” Pineda said.
The team this week has been working on being better at progressing the ball while defending their shape so that if they lose the ball, they can recover quickly. Pineda said that it’s not just about the reaction after you lose the ball, it’s how the team can create a better structure and better shape in their buildup to make it easier to win the ball back – and more difficult for the opponent to take the ball away.
Defending well has been a point of emphasis for Atlanta United throughout the preseason. The team fared better in the second half against San Jose than the first. Although they conceded an early goal in the 12th minute, Atlanta didn’t concede again. Getting a second half clean sheet paved the way for the epic comeback engineered by Almada.
The group is hoping to build off that performance in its next match against Toronto FC on Saturday, March 4. Atlanta United’s upcoming opponent scored two goals in their 3-2 opening loss to D.C. United, so the 5-Stripes are working to tighten their defending with the goal of holding the visitors scoreless.
“Hopefully, we can keep a clean sheet,” defender Miles Robinson said. “That’s something Gonzo has been preaching for us all preseason, take pride in keeping clean sheets, so hopefully we can do that.”
The 25-year-old made his club debut in Atlanta United’s home opener against San Jose, giving supporters a first look at his playing style and strengths. Berry came on in the 56th minute and played the remainder of the match.
“Traditionally, I bring good link-up play,” Berry said. “I like to combine, and I love to get in the box to make good runs and be creative with my movement. My job is always to make Thiago [Almada] better, to make Luiz [Araújo] better. They’re incredible players and the way this team is going to win is with them performing their best. I can support them in doing that and then make the team succeed.”
Right off the bat, the 17s made an impression on Berry in his first match as a member of Atlanta United. Before arriving to Atlanta, Berry made 38 appearances in MLS, so for him to say that Atlanta United is a place that stands out says a lot about the club.
“My first 20 minutes here, you see the difference,” he said. “Before you even walk in the stadium, I’m not even talking about that atmosphere, which is incredible. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. It’s not the 12th man, it’s like the 15th or 16th with how many people are there. I think this club does everything right.”
Berry shared specifically about his relocation process, which can actually be a difficult process even though that might not be something people normally think about when a new player joins the squad. The club has been helpful in helping Berry get settled quickly in Atlanta and learning the traditions.
“I think this club has gone above and beyond with that,” he said. “The facilities are incredible. The fans, I’ve never seen anything like that. The pregame march, I had no idea what I was doing. I got fitted for a tux and just kind of followed Miles [Robinson] and Derrick [Etienne Jr.] and saw what they did. That was an incredible experience that I really cherished and I’m looking forward to doing it again this weekend. This club has exceeded my expectations, which were already incredibly high.”
Center back Miles Robinson met with the media on Thursday. On Saturday against San Jose, Robinson made his first MLS appearance since his 2022 season ended due to injury.
Robinson, along with Guzan, both started the match and played a full 90 minutes in their first MLS match back from injury. And both players made significant contributions – Guzan had three saves and helped the team shut out San Jose after conceding an early goal. Robinson played effectively against San Jose’s dangerous attacking trio in Jeremy Ebobisse, Cristian Espinoza and Cade Cowell.
“Cade’s a great player, but I don’t think I’m scared of many players in the MLS defensively,” he said. “It was good to get that first 90 minutes again and I’m just looking to keep going from here.”
After the match, Robinson and Guzan met at midfield and embraced to congratulate each other on their return. For both, Saturday was a date that they’d been waiting on for a long time. Their recovery timelines were nearly synchronous, so to return to competition, and to do it together, meant a lot to both players.
“It definitely would’ve been a different type of embrace if we hadn’t won the game,” Robinson said. “We saw each other every single day for like 10 months doing the same types of exercises, feeling the same types of pains and things like this. Just the fact that we could come out and actually play back in the MLS, is something we’ve talked about for months. The fact that we could do that in a home performance for the win was definitely something special.”