Atlanta United is unbeaten on the season, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Namely, scoring more goals from close range and tightening up the defense, which is what head coach Gonzalo Pineda and his team focused on this week at training.
Atlanta United is coming off a 1-1 draw with Toronto FC last weekend. It’s a double-edged sword because, while Atlanta remains unbeaten on the season, the last match was one Atlanta clearly dominated. Not getting the three points at home shifted the mentality this week. Now, players see the chance to win points back in their next match on the road in Charlotte.
“I thought we dropped two points this past weekend,” defender Brooks Lennon said. “I thought that was a game we should’ve gotten three points, so our focus is to go to Charlotte and pick up all three points.”
Along with Pineda and Lennon, midfielder Amar Sejdić (who confirmed the reason why he missed part of preseason was because he was recovering from a broken toe) and defender Andrew Gutman all spoke to the media this week. Here are a few things to come out of their availability and the two open training sessions:
Creating more goal scoring opportunities
Training this week featured small-sided games where players looked to create chances for goal-scoring opportunities. During Tuesday’s open part of training, players worked on throw-ins, playing the ball short and moving quickly on a restart. Then, we saw as the group moved into positioning drills and 9v9, working on scoring in a tight and congested area.
All three of the team’s goals this season have been from long-range, so Pineda focused on instances where the team can find runners inside the box. At one point, defender Ronald Hernández made a move on the outside and crossed the ball on the ground into the box. The ball trickled through the middle, with no attacking player on the end of it, then was cleared away by the opposing side.
“No one’s there in the middle of the box!” Pineda told his players. “We need more goals!”
More goals, in fact, was a major area of emphasis for the team this week. According to Pro Football Focus FC, Atlanta United has created the most chances in MLS this season (30). Last weekend, Atlanta tied Toronto FC but outshot the visitors 16-4 and had nine corner kicks, compared to Toronto’s zero. However, out of all those chances, the team scored just three goals.
“We have such quality guys in the final third,” Lennon said. “We just need to give them tap-ins instead of relying upon shots from outside the box and having someone score an absolute banger of a goal or whatever it may be.”
For one part of practice, the edges of the field were taped off to mark what Pineda calls the “prime assist zones.” Those areas lead to the most opportune chances on goal. When the ball is in those areas, it's Atlanta United’s intention to get as many numbers inside the box as possible and finish off shots from close range.
“We’re always looking to find little combination plays, with the triangles and diamonds that we make on the center to the flanks, and then how we can get the ball into dangerous areas and progress from there,” Sejdić said.
First road test of the 2023 season
Atlanta United earned two results in their opening two matches of the 2023 season. Both contests came at home with the support of the 17s behind them.
Now, the team is looking to bring that energy from Mercedes-Benz Stadium into the first road test of the season. This weekend, Atlanta United travels up I-85 to North Carolina to take on Charlotte FC at Bank of America Stadium.
Being on the road for the first time in 2023, and with the first noon kickoff of the season, Atlanta United wants to be on the front foot early. They want to be the aggressor and try to impose their will just as they would if they were playing at home.
“We need to start mentally preparing for these away games knowing that we don’t need to sit back and wait for the opponent to come to us.” Lennon said. “We can take the game to them, especially on the road, and put them under a little bit of pressure.”
The 5-Stripes struggled to get wins on the road in 2022, only getting three points twice at opposing teams’ stadiums in the regular season (at D.C. United and at Orlando). Last time they were in Bank of America Stadium, they were shut out by the expansion side 1-0.
But the 5-Stripes are working to make things different this time around. Their mindset is to be on the front foot early, score first and act like it’s a home game.
“Every season in MLS is different, we could go and win every single road game this year,” Gutman said. “So, it’s just going into every single game knowing that it’s difficult to play on the road in MLS but also knowing that we want to impose our game plan on them, no matter home or away. We think we’re a good enough team to do that.”
Atlanta United looking for the season’s first clean sheet
As Atlanta United looks to finish off more of their chances, they’re also focusing on the other end of the pitch as well. Heading into the third match of the regular season, the team is still looking for their first clean sheet.
The 5-Stripes have conceded goals twice, one goal in each of their first two games. Pineda said that he’s seen some improvements, compared to where the defense was was last season, but that there’s still room for improvement.
“We love clean sheets,” Pineda said. “Good defenders in some ways win titles, win trophies. And good defense is always the sign of a good team. So, as much as we’re playing attack-minded football, and we want to attack, attack, attack, the little moments where we defend we need to be efficient.”
Gutman spoke about the need for the backline to drop into a lower block quicker and be able to cover for each other when the opponents have possession in their final third. He took accountability for his own performance, saying that his 1v1 defending needs to be better in matches.
“The biggest thing early on in the season is to define what’s not going right and to fix it as quickly as possible,” Gutman said.
Last week, Pineda talked about “marca en ataque,” or better active defending, between match 1 and match 2. The team has gotten better, however they still conceded goal against Toronto FC. The play, Gutman said, was a result of a broken press, then Michael Bradley had space to hit Federico Bernardeschi.
Atlanta United will have a chance to get their first clean sheet of this season on Saturday. Charlotte FC has only scored once on the season but isn’t far from Atlanta United in expected goals. So, the defense for Atlanta United will be an important facet of Saturday’s game plan.
“There are a few things we need to tighten up, then we should be good,” Gutman said.
Preparing for a hungry Charlotte FC
It's early in the season, still Charlotte FC enters this weekend’s match without any results so far in 2023. In their first two MLS matches, the Queen City has scored just one goal, from new designated player signing Enzo Copetti. DP winger Kamil Jozwiak has yet to score for Charlotte FC in 21 appearances in MLS.
Charlotte FC lost 1-0 to New England Revolution at home then suffered a 3-1 defeat to expansion club St. Louis CITY SC. Two early losses means that Charlotte FC are hungry (and maybe a little angry), and they'll be desperately searching to get a result at home on Saturday.
“They’re going to be amped up for the game and they’re going to be running on emotion, they want to get their first three points,” Gutman said. “So, for us, we just have to understand what environment we’re going into and also understand to not play into their press and not play into what they want us to do. We have a really good game plan going into that game. I like our chances.”
“They’re a good team,” Lennon said. “Although they haven’t gotten the results they’ve wanted this season, the clips that we’ve seen of them, they’re a good team. They’re not a team where we can just go there and expect we’re going to get three points easily. We played against them last year away, and it was a tough game. It was a tough place to play. They have a great fan base, just like us, and we’re really excited.”
But Atlanta United is hungry as well. The team feels like they dropped two points against Toronto FC, a match many of the players feel like they should’ve won. This weekend’s match presents an opportunity not to just win two points back but to pass the first road test of the season against a conference opponent.
“We are hungry for winning points away,” Pineda said. “We need points at home. We felt really like we lost two points the last weekend, and we are with that hunger to go to Charlotte and try to take those points back. So, we’re in that mood.”