Thiago Almada and Luiz Araújo have different penalty kick styles.
The pair were on display after training Thursday when they, along with a few other Atlanta United players, practiced taking penalty kicks on goalkeeper Clément Diop. For Almada, he tiptoed up to the ball like a light-footed and skillful animal stalking his prey. Except instead lunging to strike as one might expect, Almada hit the ball ever-so softly. That kind of lightness teased the goalkeeper, and Almada’s ball, touched and placed well, rainbowed over Diop’s dive into the back of the net.
Araújo’s approach was a little different but equally effective. He lined up so he can hit the ball with his dominant left foot. He leaned forward and approached with just a few rapid steps, knocking the ball with power. Someone should’ve had a speedometer to measure the velocity. The strike was so firm, Diop froze on the spot and watched as the shot clanged against the bar in the back corner of the goal. Araújo hit several like that and whipped in some free kicks from about 25 yards out too with that same lethal left foot.
Some of the guys took some free kicks after training, and Almada and head coach Gonzalo Pineda spoke. Here are a few of the storylines to come out of the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta on Thursday:
Getting back to full health
For the first time in several weeks, Atlanta United started training Thursday morning with full participation (apart from Erik López). Giorgos Giakoumakis, who’s missed a few weeks with a hamstring injury, trained in full. Franco Ibarra was out there as well and Pineda confirmed he’ll be available for selection Saturday. Ozzie Alonso, who’s steadily making his way back from an ACL tear, trained with the team as he continues to get more and more into the mix.
And there was even one surprise at training. Brad Guzan, the starting goalkeeper who suffered a torn MCL in his left knee during the 1-1 draw at New York City FC on April 8, was with the group. Expected to miss about 10-12 weeks, Guzan’s time table for a return is a little earlier than initially anticipated. However, Atlanta’s big, bald wall made his first appearance at training Thursday morning, getting a heavy sweat during a workout with the goalkeeping group.
Although Pineda said that it’s going to be difficult for Guzan to make the matchday roster for Saturday against Charlotte, and that he’ll continue to be cautious with players returning from injury, the head coach is very happy to see so many players at training.
“Having everyone available is pretty good because I have more options and the mood of the team is also better,” Pineda said.
Finding that early season form
Atlanta United has gone through a tough stretch. The team has lost their last three games, including the 2-1 loss in extra time to USL side Memphis 901 FC in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. In MLS play, Atlanta United has lost two straight on the road to Nashville SC and Inter Miami CF.
The results contrast with where the club was at the beginning of the season. Atlanta United in 2023 got off to the best four-match start in club history, winning three of their first four matches, which put the Atlanta United at the top of the Eastern Conference table.
“I think we’re going through a little bit of a bad moment,” Almada said. “But we had a good start. We won our first four or five games, and we know that just because we won those four, five games that it doesn’t mean we’re the best. And now because we’ve lost a few games in a row, it doesn’t mean we’re the worst. We have a really important game on Saturday to try to get back to that.”
A challenging stretch isn’t uncommon in football and there are many factors that can contribute to it. Injuries to starters and leaders such as Giakoumakis and Guzan, paired with an international break that called away seven players when the club was playing good football, disrupted the positive momentum that Atlanta United gained in those first few games.
“It’s so fragile being in good shape, good momentum, that you have to take care of that momentum once you get it,” Pineda said. “So we need to be on top of every little detail. Discipline, behaviors, culture, team behaviors, all that has to be taught because we need to maintain that. That’s what we need.”
Atlanta United has a chance to regain some form this Saturday when they host Charlotte FC. It’ll be the second matchup of the year between the two sides. In fact, one of Atlanta’s early wins in that opening four-match span came against Charlotte FC on the road. In that match, Atlanta was on the front foot early and scored three goals in the first half.
“I think we have to find the same team that we were in that first game, and I think it’s a good moment for us to show as a team and each one of us what we’re made of,” Almada said.
A congested week
The next match for Atlanta United is Saturday, May 13 when the team hosts Charlotte FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It’s a Rivalry Week matchup against a conference opponent. As a bonus, the Atlanta United Special Olympics Unified Team takes on Charlotte’s Unified squad after the first team match. Anyone with a ticket will be able to stay for the Unified match.
After Charlotte on Saturday, Atlanta plays its first midweek match of the MLS season against Colorado Rapids on Wednesday, May 17. Then, they’ll hit the road again for the second matchup of the season against Chicago Fire at Soldier Field on Saturday, May 20.
It’s a bit of a congested window, three matches in the span of a week, but Pineda said he feels hopeful about this period. Although the results didn’t follow, what he saw from the previous matches in Nashville and Miami was a team that was getting into dangerous areas. He also said that the team’s chemistry is building and will continue to do so with players coming back from injury. All that coming together could give Atlanta United the opportunity to find some good moments in the week ahead.
“In MLS, the momentum is very important,” Pineda said. “Getting some momentum when you have congested periods of time with a lot of games, it can dictate many things because it’s nine points on the line. So, that getting that momentum in that part I think is very important.”
Additionally, three of Atlanta’s next five matches are at home – and that could be extended if the match against LAFC, originally scheduled for June 3, moves to September. If that does happen, Atlanta United will have five of its next seven MLS matches at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. A home stretch like that arrives at an opportune time for a team looking to regain momentum.
“We need to take that advantage and make it count with points, three points every time, and we have to start on Saturday,” Pineda said.
Passing on the torch of Atlanta United in the World Cup
On Wednesday, Atlanta United and Homegrown defender Caleb Wiley received some exciting news. U.S. Soccer announced that Wiley was named to the U.S. U-20 men’s youth national team for the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup. The tournament runs May 20-June 11 in Argentina.
It's a huge moment for Wiley who, at just 18 years old, made his debut for the senior men’s national team last month against Mexico. Wiley will miss time with Atlanta United, but the club supports their Homegrown, knowing how the experience can benefit their young rising star.
One of those who’s offered support is Wiley’s teammate, Almada. As a member of the Argentina men’s national team that won the FIFA World Cup last year, he knows what it’s like to represent his country and compete at a World Cup, becoming the first active MLS player to lift the trophy. And on Thursday, Almada was able to pass the torch onto his teammate.
“I congratulated him,” Almada shared. “To play in a World Cup with your national team, it’s the best feeling for a player. The U-20 World Cup is a great experience. He’s a great player, we’re going to miss him a lot here, but I really hope that he enjoys the experience.”