The attackers and defenders were split.
The mini-scrimmages that happen during Atlanta United training sessions always embody competition. Sometimes, the competitiveness is more animated and lively. Other times, like today, it’s intense and chippy. There were times when a player fell to the ground after a hard tackle. Other times, the play produced an emotional response, like when Josef Martínez screamed in anguish after one of his shots missed the goal.
In Thursday’s small-sided game, competition bred even amongst scrimmage teammates. With a minute remaining, defender Anton Walkes wanted to possess the ball and run out the clock so the orange team could get the win. Meanwhile, striker Jake Mulraney, also donning an orange penny, was looking to score a few more goals.
The result was a fiery exchange.
“Anton’s an idiot,” Mulraney said jokingly after practice.
Thursday’s session was the first practice open to media since Atlanta United clinched a spot in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. Some might expect locking a spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs might increase the team’s intensity at practice. And there was a bit more of an edge during today’s practice.
“The blood’s boiling a little bit,” defender George Campbell said after practice. “When it gets into it and it gets intense, we all want to win.”
The will to win was evident in the scrimmages today. But even though there’s more at stake with the team's Round One matchup set against New York City FC, the fiery spirit has always existed with this team.
“Honestly, that happens every day,” Mulraney said. “That’s just because we’re competitive. We want to win. It’s a small sort of game, and something goes wrong and people have voices, people have big personalities, and we want to let people know how we feel. I mean, I love it. I love that it shows that we all want to win. We all want to give it a go and even in small sort of games, I love that.”
Here are a few more key insights and observations from practice at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground on Thursday:
The attackers and defenders split up – not in disagreement, but on the pitch for the latter part of practice.
The attackers set up on the far side to run through crossing and finishing drills. Wingbacks Brooks Lennon and George Bello took turns sending the ball across the box from either side. Forwards such as Jackson Conway or Martínez flooded the box one at a time to finish off the cross. Attackers would also have turns taking the ball down the middle and letting it go from the top of the box.
These drills are all part of some of the team’s efforts to be more clinical in the final third and create more attacking chances. Coaches encouraged players to play faster, shouts of "rapido!" echoing over the pitch throughout the day.
“We need to make sure that we’re on the front foot all the time, trying to press high, trying to be more aggressive on the shift overs,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “And, offensively be more aggressive, play more forward passes, break lines, be more dynamic in our ball movement. The same way we move the ball side to side, do it a little bit faster. Especially on a narrow field, we need to move the ball faster so we get some more time and space on the opposite sides.”
On the other side of the pitch, the defenders went through passing sequences. Campbell, Mikey Ambrose and Bryce Washington joined Walkes and Alan Franco. As a unit, they practiced passing and moving the ball from the backline up the pitch. The ball made its way to Ambrose or Washington on the flanks, and they either shot the ball into one of two smaller goals or passed it back around.
“We’re working on really keeping the ball in tight spaces, moving it quick and being able to switch fast,” Campbell said.
Pineda designed practice this week around a few principles he wanted the team to work on. He spoke specifically about ball movement, shown by the work the defenders were doing and the finishing that the attacking players were working on.
This week is focused on making self-improvements, Pineda explained, and more specific preparations for NYCFC will come next week.
“It’s about ourselves,” Pineda said. “Take care of the load, of the physicality of the team, who needs more recovery and push a bit more the principles of play we want to work with.”
Growing Young Talent
Campbell spoke to the media after practice. The defender has seen significant playing time at certain points this season. He started four straight matches in September and came on as a sub in Atlanta United’s regular season finale against Cincinnati on Nov. 7.
Now, he’s focused on learning from veterans on the backline like Walkes and goalkeeper Brad Guzan.
“Brad is a loud voice in the locker room and on the field,” Campbell said. “He’s always helping with training as well. I think he’s like the main one that in the game, he’s the one behind you that you’re listening to while you try to take it upon yourself to try and talk to who’s in front of you.”
The 20-year-old Homegrown spoke about some of the things he’s learned about this season.
“From a personal standpoint, play with confidence like you deserve to be on the field all the time,” he said.
Campbell’s advice could resonate with some other young talent in Atlanta United’s system. Washington, with another player Josh Bauer, who have both played a majority of their minutes with Atlanta United 2, participated in the first team practice on Thursday.
Another young player also making an impact this week is Caleb Wiley, the academy player. Wiley was called up to the U.S. U-20 men’s national team for the Revelations Cup in Mexico from Nov. 7-17.
Even with training preparations, and attending his son’s own practice, Pineda was able to watch the first 20 minutes of Wiley’s match on Wednesday against Brazil.
“Still, it’s a great experience for Caleb,” Pineda said. “I was very happy him starting at this age against a great opponent like Brazil, and it’s just great experience that is going to impact the way he approaches, in the future, more important games.”
The U.S. U-20 men’s national team has two matches remaining in the Revelations Cup. Click here to learn how to watch.
"Every Game Matters" Mindset
Even though it'll spend more time on NYCFC next week, the club is using the 14 days in between matches to get its mindset ready. The tight race in the Eastern Conference at the end of the regular season helped the team prepare for the MLS Cup Playoffs. That’s why Pineda doesn’t believe it’s necessarily a flip of the switch from regular season to a new mindset.
“We were pretty much playing for ‘we need to win every game’ and that is the same mentality we have now,” Pineda said. “It’s only one game and that’s all that matters. If you lose, you’re out. And if you win, you go onto the next."
The “every game matters” mentality the team adopted during the regular season paid off. Atlanta capped off the its 2021 campaign with a hard-fought 0-0 draw at Red Bull Arena and a 2-1 come-from-behind victory on the road against FC Cincinnati to clinch its fourth berth in the MLS Cup Playoffs in the club’s five-year history.
“That’s what we’ve achieved, through the last 15 games or so,” Mulraney said. “Obviously, it didn’t start great and it didn’t look like we were going to have a chance, but I mean the boys took it even and we got there.”
And now, the team starts the groundwork for Round One with a young squad, a strong mentality – and something else.
“Now the players have to continue with that mentality, like this is life or death,” Pineda said. “But now we have a bit more confidence.”
Visit atlutd.com/playoffs for latest news and coverages of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs.