If you’re familiar with Atlanta United, you should’ve heard by now about head coach Gonzalo Pineda’s birthday tradition. If not, here’s a quick summary: the team celebrates birthdays after training, and it usually involves the birthday guy getting cake smashed into his face.
This week, something special happened. The birthday aligned with media availability. So, when Jake Mulraney waltzed up to the microphone to answer questions from local media, there was a smattering of cake all over his face and remnants of icing on his training kit.
“You guys don’t mind if I do it like this?” Mulraney asked the reporters.
The Irishman’s birthday was yesterday, and today the team celebrated. Mulraney said, as it’s important to report, the cake tasted like Oreo cookie.
It was a small, fun moment – and whether or not Mulraney was distracted while answering questions by the hunk of chocolate stuck above his mouth is unclear (although, the little grin he got every so often as he gave an answer suggested that perhaps he was thinking about it).
Prior to Mulraney’s notable, sugary appearance, the team trained on a foggy, cloudy Wednesday morning. The players went through keepaway drills before moving onto conditioning. Then, the players divided up to work on competitive 1v1 shooting and defending on four regulation-size goals. Later, the groups rejoined on one pitch to work on transition play in a 2v1, 3v2 drill.
During this portion of practice, there were several good moments: Bobby Shuttleworth smacked a save so hard it echoed. Santiago Sosa hit a one-touch curling shot into the net. Assistant coach Rob Valentino encouraged Caleb Wiley, “Don’t give up on the play!” and Wiley came up with the takeaway. Noah Cobb made an excellent shot, then transitioned quickly to turn around and block one on the other end. Amar Sejdić made an overlapping run closely defended by Andrew Gutman, then got the ball out of the corner for Mikey Ambrose to finish.
Here are a few more observations and insights from the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground on Wednesday:
Highs and Lows
The team is balancing between high moments and lows. On Saturday, the team beat D.C. United 1-0 on a stoppage time goal from Marcelino Moreno, a performance that earned him a spot on the MLS Team of the Week for the first time in 2022. It was the club’s third win of the season and first on the road.
Saturday was the third time this season Atlanta United scored a goal to change the result of a match in the final moments; the second win. Clawing its way back from being behind in matches has been the team’s M.O. so far this season.
“I feel like we never stop,” Mulraney said. “It shows our character and it also shows our quality, our fitness as well, to keep going. I feel like I’ve always said this since I’ve come here, we have the quality and the team to make something happen whenever.”
As the team came off a high on Saturday, it also dealt with some difficult news. On Tuesday, the club announced updates for three starters who were injured during the match: Midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, midfielder Mattheus Rossetto and striker Josef Martínez.
Alonso tore his ACL and his timeline is TBD. Rossetto injured his left hamstring and will be out 2-4 weeks. Martínez experienced some discomfort in his right knee, and the club will provide an update later this week.
“It’s tough to see because they’re our teammates and they’re good people, so you don’t want to see them go through that,” midfielder Franco Ibarra said. “But we’re a team so we’re supporting them, and we have other players.”
Given the recovery time and his presence on the field, the Alonso injury feels especially like a massive loss. The 36-year-old midfielder has played more than 13 seasons in MLS. He joined Atlanta United this offseason as a free agent and played a full 90 in every match he started for the 5-Stripes. His veteran presence on the pitch was incredibly valuable for a young, growing squad.
“It’s obviously never nice to see lads out injured, especially Ozzie,” Mulraney said. “Great guy, great player. So, it’s pretty sad.”
Martínez came off in the 61st minute against D.C. United and reported feeling some discomfort in his knee. The striker traveled to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for a reexamination, so he was not at training on Wednesday.
Mulraney spoke with Martínez during the last match and said he hopes to have Martínez back as soon as possible.
“It’s not just the quality you’re missing, it’s his presence,” Mulraney said. “You miss his presence. He’s got quite a good presence around the changing room in terms of making people lift their game.”
Atlanta United has some depth to its roster, at least partly, to help fill these notable absences. Up top, that could mean more playing time for strikers Jackson Conway and Dom Dwyer. (Add Ronaldo Cisneros to the mix; the striker on loan from Chivas arrived to Atlanta this week.)
“We’re all a team, so we all work together as a team,” Ibarra said. “Everyone’s on the same page trying to do the best they can to help the group. So whichever player the coach decides to play, I think they’re capable of doing the job.”
Two more players who could step up this week in the midfield are Ibarra and Sosa. Both players got a late start arriving to Atlanta after waiting on their visas in Argentina. Both players also dealt with some injuries leading up to the start of the season. Sosa from a sports hernia surgery he had in the fall, Ibarra from a light injury he suffered during preseason.
“Personally, I’m feeling good,” Ibarra said. “I’ve missed playing, I’ve been out. But little by little, I’m feeling better each day.”
However, both players are also making their way back. Sosa has progressively seen more playing time, going 12 minutes in the 3-3 draw to CF Montréal on March 19. Against D.C. United this past weekend, Sosa and Ibarra entered the match as subs. Sosa came on at halftime for Rossetto. Ibarra came on in the 62nd minute for Alonso. It was Ibarra's first appearance of the season.
On Wednesday after training, Ibarra met with the media and spoke about his relationship with Sosa. The two players, who are both from Argentina and joined the club in 2021, are good friends.
“You can see both of us the passion that we play with in the midfield,” Ibarra said. “I think we have a good understanding. We talk, we listen to each other, so we have a good relationship on the field.
Mulraney also delved into some of the connections he’s forming on the pitch. Mulraney was in the starting XI against D.C. United. Pineda said after the match he liked the way Mulraney worked with fellow starters Moreno and Thiago Almada. The three were creative in the attack, looking to send balls in behind D.C. United’s backline to set up their teammates.
“I’m great with the two lads off the field, so that makes a massive difference on the field,” Mulraney said. “Marcelino and Thiago are really, really nice players, really technical players. I feel like they would lift your game five, 10 percent definitely.”
Picking Up Road Points
The win at Audi Field on Saturday was the first on the road for Atlanta United this season. The team will be looking to continue that success with three more road matches this month.
The players know the importance of picking up points on the road. On Wednesday, Jake Mulraney echoed what Gutman said last week, and emphasized that good teams get points on the road.
“From the outside looking in, maybe it looks a little bit easier when we play at the Benz or that we have a little bit more of an advantage at the Benz,” Mulraney said. “We still need to go away and perform the same as we do.”
Up next, Atlanta United travels to face Charlotte FC for the second and final matchup between the two Eastern Conference clubs this season. It’s the first match all-time between the two clubs on Carolina soil. Kickoff will be at Bank of America Stadium, the venue that Charlotte FC shares with its NFL counterpart, the Carolina Panthers.
The two teams met previously on March 13 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Charlotte played Atlanta United tough, but the 5-Stripes defended their home turf and won the inaugural matchup 2-1 behind a game-winning goal from Mulraney.
To prepare for Sunday, Atlanta United plans to analyze the different styles Charlotte played in the previous matchup. But most importantly, Atlanta United remains focused on getting better and taking advantage of racking up away points early in the season.
“We want to go out every game and play the same way, it doesn’t matter who the opponent is,” Ibarra said. “We just want to continue working and playing like we want to.”