On this episode of Atlanta United, it’s Thursday at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground, and players are back together after a brief two-week break to prepare for another MLS matchup.
The September international window closed this week. Four first team players, who were with their respective countries on international duty, returned to the club (including Thiago Almada, who earned some praise from Lionel Messi and played some minutes with Argentina). But the work in Atlanta continues as the team prepares for its final two MLS matches of the regular season.
Saturday marks the Atlanta’s first match since September 17 – and the first following an action-packed month. The time in between matches proved to be useful for Atlanta United. The head coach was pleased with how his group was able to make the most out of the two weeks.
“Yes, we’re satisfied,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “I think it’s been two weeks of very good sessions. We’ve been working on things that we think can grow the team in this last part of the season, and I’m very happy with the outcome.”
The One Where We Work On Scoring
Atlanta United used the international break to focus on themselves. One of the skills they’ve been working in is finishing. In the past two matches, Atlanta United has created a lot of chances but was only able to convert one of those opportunities into a goal – the lone goal in Atlanta’s 1-0 win at Exploria Stadium over Orlando City SC.
So in training, the team is working on the attack, speeding up play and putting an emphasis on finishing their chances. Players are trying to take advantage of the spaces they’ve been given and capitalizing on their moments to score.
“I think we just have to have more confidence, more confidence in what we’re doing and more confidence in all of our teammates because we have players who are in those positions who are very capable,” midfielder Matheus Rossetto said.
In its last match, Atlanta United took 16 shots on Philadelphia Union, a club competing for the Supporters Shield, and finished with 1.33 expected goals. However, Atlanta United couldn’t convert any of its six shots on target and the match resulted in a 0-0 draw. Looking ahead to the final stretch of the season, Pineda wanted to get his players more reps and emphasize being more clinical in the final third so players can be rewarded for their chances.
“The past two weeks, we’ve been working on us and the principles that we want to do, how we want to play, trying to be more sharp in certain things, especially in both boxes. That’s what we are working on,” Pineda said.
The One with Raúl Gudiño
Prior to the break, Atlanta United found success in the past two games defensively and played well against two clubs currently above the playoff line. Atlanta is also coming off two consecutive clean sheets, shutting out Orlando City SC on Sept. 14 and Philadelphia Union on Sept. 17. In the scoreless draw with Philadelphia, Atlanta United held the Supporters Shield contenders to their lowest expected goals of the season (0.16)
Some of that defensive success goes to the starting goalkeeper, Raúl Gudiño. A 26-year-old veteran with international experience with the Mexico men’s national team, Gudiño’s ability to solidfy the backline has pleased his head coach. Pineda also said Gudiño’s been a vocal leader and has shown moments when he can slow down and read the game well – like the play he made against Orlando City that kept the clean sheet in tact and was our Save of the Month for September.
Consistency has also helped the backline. The match against Philadelphia marked the third straight match where Pineda sent on the same starting XI. Growing familiarity, especially amongst the backline, has helped the goalkeeper and the defenders play well together.
“I think we just need to continue to do what we’ve been doing in the past few games, working well both offensively and defensively. For me, it’s about being prepared for however many saves I have to make,” Gudiño said.
Although Gudiño has been solid between the sticks, Pineda believes the back-to-back clean sheets are a collective effort, all the way up to the no. 9. And, although he’s been happy with that defensive effort, the identity Pineda wants his team to embody remains the same: trying to play on the front foot and create more chances than the opponent.
“The vision we have is yes, we have to have good defenders and be solid defensively when the face of the game is defensive, but the best way to defend of us is attacking. And that’s what we try to do,” Pineda said.
The One (or a few) Chance At Playoffs
Atlanta United enters Saturday’s matchup in ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings with 40 points, just two points off the playoff line. With just two matches remaining in the regular season, for Atlanta United to have their best chance at the playoffs, they need to pick up six points in the final two games.
Atlanta United could use some help from Toronto FC and New York Red Bulls this weekend. Those clubs play Inter Miami CF and Columbus Crew, respectively. Both Columbus and Miami have two more points than Atlanta United in the table.
While the 17s will be keeping an eye on those results (and rooting for the… Red Bulls? *sigh). Atlanta United, on the other hand is focusing on what the team needs to do to put themselves in the best position possible on Decision Day.
“I think for us it’s the same goal, which is winning,” Pineda said. “These are must-win games. These are Finals for us.”