It felt like it was on the way. No, not the lightning bolt that struck ground near the club’s facility in Marietta earlier this week. Rather, the uptick in confidence. With a few players making their way back from injuries, and a restored attack that only increased its speed during the secondary transfer window, it felt like Atlanta United was on its way toward a good performance.
And it played out in dramatic fashion in the last match. Atlanta United defeated Concacaf Champions League winners Seattle Sounders 2-1 on Saturday, getting points against one of the league’s most historically successful franchises. The win gave Atlanta United confidence and a much needed boost after two straight matches without a goal.
However, going into training this week, the team is not patting itself on the back. Yes, the result is a positive indication and could perhaps be a swing in momentum, but there are still important soccer games to play. And with just eight weeks remaining until Decision Day, every match matters.
“Winning against a good team like Seattle is good for your confidence,” defender Juanjo Purata said on Thursday. “But we know that we can’t be satisfied because we still haven’t won anything yet. There’s still a lot to play for, and we haven’t proven anything yet. So, we have to continue to do the work and get good results.”
Here are a few more insights and observations around the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground:
Working Out The Midfield
On Monday, the club announced that Matheus Rossetto will be week-to-week after injuring his ankle during the match against Seattle. Rossetto has started 18 matches for Atlanta United this season, second most behind center back Alan Franco, and wore the captain’s armband a few times.
Head coach Gonzalo Pineda has some options in the midfield including Santiago Sosa, Amar Sejdić, Franco Ibarra and Marcelino Moreno. Moreno replaced Rossetto on Saturday, which ended up paying off. He was credited with an assist on Andrew Gutman’s game-winning goal.
“Because of his quality and abilities on the ball, we felt that we can be more aggressive from the middle, and that was the decision in that moment,” Pineda said. “Now, this is a different game and we have to see what midfield can provide more balance to us, and that’s where the decision will come from.”
The choice to bring Moreno in the match meant pairing him up with Thiago Almada, who started the match. Although the two are both more attacking players, rather than defending, Almada liked the way they worked together and helped create chances for Atlanta United.
“The coach is putting us in the spaces in the best positions for us, so we’re always listening to him and trying to be aggressive when we get the ball,” Almada said.
The grouping of Almada, Moreno and Sosa is what Pineda went with against Seattle, but the head coach has other pairs in mind for certain moments. He could pair Sosa with Ibarra or Sejdić, for example. Whichever pair he goes with in the midfield, Pineda says it will be what he finds the best fit for that match and that opponent.
“We have to try to see out of all the options we have trained, which makes more sense for this game,” Pineda said.
Fresh Legs On The Backline
Defenders Caleb Wiley and Aiden McFadden have been playing a lot of minutes as of late. Wiley has started all 10 matches since the June international break and played a full 90 in seven of those. His counterpart McFadden has started eight of nine matches since being called up from Atlanta United 2 as a U-20 replacement signing on June 17.
But, as we reported last week, the team is adding some reinforcements that could help the backline. Ronald Hernández was on the bench for the Seattle match. Pineda confirmed that Brooks Lennon also could’ve been available for selection against Seattle but didn’t want to rush his timeline.
“He’s always that guy who works real hard, and you know what you’re going to get from him,” McFadden said of Lennon. “So he’s a guy that I’ve been looking to, kind of trying to replicate with my minutes. So, excited to have him back. I’m sure the team is as well because he’s a great player.”
Last weekend against Seattle, one of those reinforcements came up big. Andrew Gutman, who returned to training in July and made his second appearance since coming back from a quadriceps tendon injury, entered the match in the 82nd minute. In stoppage time, Gutman delivered a scorching screamer to give Atlanta United its first-ever win against Seattle Sounders.
It was his first career goal as a member of the 5-Stripes, and Gutman earned Team of the Week honors for the performance (although, surprisingly, was robbed of a nomination for Goal of the Week).
Gutman, who mostly plays left fullback, filled in as a center back when he entered the match against the Sounders. With Hernández and Lennon possibly getting back into the mix soon, we could see more of a rotation in the backline to keep legs fresh during the final weeks of the season.
“There will be some sort of rotation, some games more, some games less, maybe no rotations in certain moments,” Pineda said. “But I think many players will have opportunities in the next few weeks, and we will address which one needs more rest at the right time.”
The Value of Juanjo Purata
Perhaps one of the most fruitful additions for the 5-Stripes during the transfer window has been Purata. The 24-year-old from Mexico joined Atlanta United on loan from Tigres UANL, a professional club in Mexico that plays in Liga MS, and will be available for the 5-Stripes for the remainder of the 2022 MLS season.
The center back has added value at a position of need for Atlanta United, providing depth (and height with his 5-foot-11 frame) to the team’s backline. He’s also taken on the role of being a vocal leader, an important quality for a generally young squad.
“He adds a little bit of leadership to the backline,” Pineda said on Thursday. “He’s been very solid for us. He’s a steady center back that understands his role, and he’s been a great addition so far. Obviously, he kind of stabilizes now the backline, and we like that.”
As good as he’s been on the field, Purata has been just as good, if not better, for the team off the pitch. His head coach says that Purata is a good communicator, someone who is always enthusiastic with his teammates, and adjusts well to his surroundings. When asked Thursday which side he rooted for in Wednesday's All-Star game, Purata said MLS, even though most of his previous experience before Atlanta United was in Liga MX.
The center back has impressed with his adaptability. He made his first appearance with the team on July 9 against Austin FC. In the next match, the 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake, he made the starting XI. Then, in his third appearance, Purata scored his first career MLS goal, which evened the match against Orlando City and landed him on the MLS Team of the Week.
“I’ve felt very comfortable so far, and I feel like I’ve adapted very well to the team, but I wouldn’t say that I’m in a comfort zone because I still think I haven’t reached my ceiling yet. I think I have a lot of room to improve,” Purata said.
Purata likes to communicate with teammates on the backline to keep the group organized. He tries to tell guys who’s behind them and point them where to go, but he also speaks words of support and encouragement. This he does in Spanish or English, depending on which player Purata is talking to. This vocal presence commands Atlanta’s defense and helps teach young players like Wiley and McFadden.
“Coming from a very experienced team in Mexico where I was always the younger guy on the backline, I’ve learned a lot from playing with those older teammates,” Purata said. “And now, coming here, it’s true that I’m a little bit older, but I’m still a young player. But it’s just about trying to bring that experience that I’ve gained throughout my career and try to help these guys and help us all continue to improve.”
Purata’s statement about not being satisfied shows that there’s still a lot that Atlanta United needs to prove. Although they don’t want to rest on their laurels, there was a lot of positivity from the team this week after the Seattle match:
“I think it [the confidence] was coming before then, that might be part of the reason we were able to get that result,” McFadden said. “I think we’re starting to come together a bit. And we want the results to keep rolling in, so it’s on to the next one now.”
“I think we’re feeling good in the way we were able to win the game, and I think we deserved it,” Almada said. “And hopefully this win can lead us into another win in our next match.”
“The last two games we’ve been much better and had a little bit more determination in certain moments” Pineda said. “You always see good determination on the field, but in certain key moments of the game you see a little bit extra and a little bit better mentality and understanding how to close down games, how to make sure we are not punishing in certain other games. So, I think that mentality is going to help us to give the last push for the last part of the season.”
Can the group carry their confidence into a road trip against an Eastern Conference side currently above the playoff line? We’ll find out Saturday, August 13 when Atlanta United takes on FC Cincinnati at TQL Stadium. Here's how to watch, listen and live stream the match.