It’s the first FIFA international window of the year, and things around the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground are still the same. Well, for the most part.
Atlanta United is still unbeaten on the season, the club’s best start in history. The team still has a match this week, this time at Lower.com Field against Columbus Crew. The players continue to train, in front of reporters on Tuesday and Thursday, ahead of their second road match of the season.
Head coach Gonzalo Pineda is still making active defending a strong focus in training sessions, working with players on how to win the ball back as quickly as possible whenever they lose it. This week, pressing was a key element along with transitioning quickly and making strong supporting runs to confuse the defense and finish balls in the final third.
However, the part of the week that was different was some missing faces. Several players from Atlanta United were called up by their national teams for the March international FIFA window. With an upcoming match on the road, it will be a significant test for the 5-Stripes as they look to fill the gaps left by three starters from the last match.
Here are the main storylines to come out of training at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground:
Seven players on international duty
The match day roster for Saturday will look a little different for head coach Gonzalo Pineda. Seven players are away from the club on international duty, the most out of any MLS squad. Miles Robinson, Thiago Almada, Ronald Hernández, Giorgos Giakoumakis, Machop Chol, Luis Abram and Derrick Etienne Jr. have all been called up to their respective national teams.
The timing is not ideal, given the current run that Atlanta United is on. The 5-Stripes are off to their best start in club history and have yet to lose an MLS match in 2023. Players on international duty include three starters from Atlanta’s most recent match, the 5-1 win over Portland Timbers. Specifically, the team will be without their leading goal scorer in Almada and one of their assist leaders in Etienne.
Pineda has some experience not having a full roster at his disposal. Last season, the head coach had to do that quite often with players out due to injury and international duty for World Cup qualification. For Pineda, the key to moments like this is for the coaching staff to ensure every player understands his role. He calls to mind something Brian Schmetzer taught him in Seattle: that coaches are responsible for giving their players the tools to succeed.
“We’re not changing the core of the team, I think that’s important,” Pineda said. “But also, the clear understanding on the tactics and the roles. We’re big on the roles of the players. Like everyone should have a role and everyone should understand the role on the field. And from there just apply. And it’s with the application what will make us better, or worse, but they all should have a clear understanding of what they’re doing.”
Trying to maintain the same system, regardless of the players involved, is something Pineda is very proud of. So far this week, they’re seeing the results in training. The group that remains is focused more on the guys who are here for this match than what it means to have some guys away.
“I don’t think there’s any worry because we’re all here,” defender Franco Ibarra said. “The guys are working hard every day. Of course, we know the quality of the players who are missing, but we’re continuing to prepare in the same way.”
Substituting Thiago Almada
Thiago Almada has been on a tear for the 5-Stripes so far in 2023, and in the first four matches of the season, he’s been an absolute thrill to watch. The midfielder from Argentina swept the league awards this week, including MLS Player of the Matchday and Goal of the Matchday. He currently dominates the player-led stats on MLSSoccer.com and leads MLS in goals (4), assists (4) and key passes (13).
Atlanta’s Starboy won’t be available for his club in the next match against Columbus Crew on Saturday. Instead, the 21-year-old will be reuniting with his countrymen on the World Cup winning Argentina men’s national team and suiting up for La Albiceleste in two international friendlies.
Almada has been a big reason why Atlanta United has gotten off to such a historic start. His brace in second-half stoppage time in the 2-1 win over San Jose Earthquakes saved the 5-Stripes from dropping points at home. Against Portland Timbers last weekend, he created seven chances, the most in a single game in MLS this season.
Atlanta United will look to continue to be on the front foot even without Almada – and the 5-Stripes will still have guys such as Caleb Wiley and Luiz Araújo who can do that. Without Almada, Pineda is planning to implement more tactics and a better understanding of where players can find the space Almada finds so well. However, the head coach admits that there’s a part of Almada’s play that’s going to be tough to replicate.
“The creativity,” Pineda said. “Technically, he’s very good. We have other technical players on the team, but the creative part. To see the gaps in between the backline to play a through ball, his creativity to dribble but already knowing where the next pass is going, reading the game, adjusting in the last second of a play to find the best pass. That’s the quality that Almada has.”
Fresh faces and young bucks
Along with Almada, Atlanta United will be without another one of their Designated Players for the Columbus match. Striker Giorgos Giakoumakis has been called up to join his home nation of Greece for a pair of matches.
With Giakoumakis away, Miguel Berry is likely to see time up top at striker. Berry came to Atlanta via D.C. United this offseason, but he spent most of his playing time before then as a member of the Crew. Columbus selected him No. 7 overall in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft out of the University of San Diego. In 34 appearances for Columbus, Berry scored 10 goals, including an eight-goal season in 2021.
“We know we have to keep building [here in Atlanta],” Berry said. “Obviously, I’m extra excited because I have good friends on the team, and it’d be nice to score again there.”
Miles Robinson and Luis Abram are also away on international duty, which means the club will likely rely on Noah Cobb to help the backline. Cobb has yet to make his first career MLS appearance since his Homegrown contract went into effect in January. However, he played 90 minutes against Toluca FC in the American Family Insurance Cup. The 17-year-old, according to Pineda, has a very high ceiling and a good test ahead of him on Saturday.
Joining Cobb as young players making the trip to Ohio on Saturday are Luke Brennan, Alan Carleton and Nick Firmino. As of Thursday morning, those three players were called up to the first team on short term loans and are available to make the match day roster against Columbus Crew on Saturday.
Brennan, Carleton and Firmino have all been part of first team training this week. They also earned playing time during the team’s preseason and joined the club on their trip to Mexico. So while they may get their first introductions to supporters this weekend, their faces aren’t new to some of the first team mainstays.
“I think the young players have adapted well to training,” Araújo said. “They’re good players. Us, as experienced players, it’s up to us to help them. I’ve been in their position, so we’ve come up and now we’re here to try and help them, and I think they’ll score many goals in the future for Atlanta United.”