It’s a double match week for Atlanta United, which means no days off. After playing a midweek game on Wednesday at home against the New York Red Bulls, the 5-Stripes prepare for their second matchup of the week. The team makes its second trip to Ohio in eight days for an Eastern Conference meeting on Sunday against Columbus Crew.
The week has certainly felt compressed. After Wednesday's match, the team returned to training in Marietta on Thursday and Friday morning. Atlanta United will also train Saturday morning at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground before departing for Columbus.
On Friday, the team split up to compete against each other in the open part of practice. But it wasn’t cascaritas or even the usual rondos. This time, the guys went head-to-head in soccer table tennis and soccer volleyball. Small tables and volleyball nets were set up on the far side of the pitch at the Training Ground, and the groups rotated between the games to keep their legs fresh. Head coach Gonzalo Pineda and his right-hand man, assistant coach Diego de la Torre, joined in and competed along with the players.
Here are a few more insights and observations from the Training Ground on Friday:
Managing Condensed Fixtures
The session on Friday was crisp, and the team wrapped up training as well as media availability (much to the gratitude of the reporters) before 11 a.m. Atlanta United will be back on the road this week, returning to Ohio for the second time in eight days after being in Cincinnati last weekend. Sunday also marks the team’s third match in the same time span.
Atlanta United is within a part of the schedule with several condensed fixtures, so keeping players fresh is important, especially toward the end of the season. On Tuesday, striker Ronaldo Cisneros said the team was focusing on recovery after they played an up-and-down match against FC Cincinnati. And on Friday, we saw some of Wednesday’s starters return to the facility for recovery. Meanwhile, other players remained on the pitch for drills and to continue in the soccer table tennis competition.
With Atlanta United facing a quick turnaround yet again, managing players’ loads is likely to be an important facet. Against New York on Wednesday, defender Andrew Gutman came in as a halftime sub after starting the previous match. The case is similar with Ronald Hernández and Brooks Lennon, who both primarily play right fullback. Lately, Hernández has gotten the start in the past two games with Lennon coming off the bench. That decision, Pineda pointed out, was also to not rush a player returning from injury and will to be determined game-to-game.
“Ronald started to train a little bit earlier than Brooks and you saw a little bit of progression that we want to take with the players,” Pineda said.
Putting The Focus On Atlanta United
With just nine matches remaining on the schedule, the club is coming up on the home stretch of the regular season. And at this point, every match feels like a must-win for Atlanta United. The team faced this same mindset on Wednesday for a midweek match against New York Red Bulls but conceded two early goals and couldn’t make up the deficit.
“After a match obviously you feel a little disappointed for the past results, but after reviewing film I'm struck by the team’s dedication,” Pineda said. “I think it was a match where it looked like Red Bulls were dynamic and intense, which they were, but I think we were as well. There were many moments where we played well, where we won individual duels, especially in the second half.”
The team is addressing what didn’t work on Wednesday and making those corrections. But the coaching staff is also focusing on what went well. For Pineda, he’s looking at a second half when the team moved the ball better and didn’t concede any goals. With the upcoming matchup in Columbus, he wants to see his team carry that over. He also wants to correct the small details and see his team be more demanding in the final third and mark better defensively on set plays.
“We’re focused on our job, preparing what we have to do for the game,” midfielder Santiago Sosa said. “We know that they’re a good team and that it’s going to be a difficult game, but we’re trying to focus on what we need to do.”
Keeping A Playoff Mindset
A quick glance at the table shows the Atlanta United crest toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Even after suffering a tough home loss, the club remains within close striking distance of the playoff line. Atlanta United currently has 29 points in the table, just four away from seventh-place Orlando City SC.
To help turn the page from the 2-1 loss to Red Bulls, Pineda is using the situation in the table to motivate his players. He told his team where they stand with 27 points up for grabs.
“Obviously if we stay in a negative head space, in the moment everything would appear to be dark and gloomy, that we are a disaster, but that’s not that case,” Pineda said. “I think the team does many things well. First of all, I like that they never give up. They fight, they give their all, they create opportunities. I think the team gives 100 percent.”
Pineda’s message to the team at training this week has been positive. And in response, his players are keeping a positive outlook as well.
“The team is very enthusiastic, very motivated to make the playoffs,” Sosa said. “That was our goal since the beginning of the season, so we’re very focused on doing that.”
The Mentality Of Conceding Goals
In the last two games combined, against FC Cincinnati and New York Red Bulls, Atlanta United has conceded four goals in the first half. That gives Atlanta United a -10-goal differential in the first half of games on the season, the worst in MLS.
To improve this stat, the team wants to focus on its concentration in key moments, which includes the opening minutes of the match and on set pieces.
“I think maybe just more concentration in the early minutes of games because that’s when we’re receiving goals,” Sosa said. “But the focus has to be fully concentrated in those moments, especially when the game starts.”
Pineda says that it’s inevitable to have to have a mental switch when the team concedes a goal or faces a deficit. However, the head coach has been happy with how his team responded in both recent matches when that was the case. He cited against FC Cincinnati when, down 2-1, the team came together and produced a chance for Luiz Araújo at the end of the first half.
“That’s what we need to maintain a bit more emotional levels, more steady emotional levels,” Pineda said. “It’s also part of having the maturity of having a lot of young players. It’s normal. It’s part of that growth and that development. We have to accept that when you have young players, and it’s part of their growth.”
No, this isn’t a cake smash description. Although the team has a lot of games in few days, the team is never too busy to celebrate important milestones. On Friday, the team opened practice with a tunnel for Mikey Ambrose. The Atlanta United defender and his fiancée welcomed a baby boy this week.
Also, in case you missed it, another warm moment for the 5-Stripe family occurred after Wednesday’s match. Defender Brooks Lennon gifted his jersey to a fan in the stands.