The end of the season is approaching. The playoff field will soon be set, Decision Day looms just nine days away, MLS released nominations for its End of Year Awards.
As the regular season turns over into its final month, so does the weather.
It was a gray, blustery morning at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground on Friday. The temperature held around 50 degrees but felt even colder with the strong windchill.
The cooler temperature meant Atlanta United players brought out the winter weather gear for training. They went through drills and an animated scrimmage in long sleeves. Forward Luiz Araújo wore leggings, gloves and a scarf – the Brazilian covering every inch of skin but his face. Midfielder Ezequiel Barco donned a knit beanie on his head to warm his ears. Defender Anton Walkes, the English native who should perhaps be most acclimated to this kind of weather, fit some kind of thermal headliner tightly on his head.
In their covered limbs, players competed in a scrimmage that was particularly animated, producing some smack talk and even a brief celebration dance from Araújo after he scored a goal. Even at the end of the week, in between games, on a cold, ugly day, the energy level was high.
The team was competitive, spirited and focused in its final preparations before Toronto.
“We expect the best Toronto,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “That’s what we expect and we’ll prepare for the best.”
The Comeback Kid
Josef Martínez was available to the media on Friday. He spoke on a wide range of topics, including his thoughts on the Miami match, playing with Barco and midfielder Marcelino Moreno, and rooting on the Atlanta Braves in the World Series.
The commonality between all these talking points was the striker’s mindset. He said repeatedly that he’s focused on making the most of his chances and coming through for his team in those moments, especially at this critical juncture when the playoff picture is starting to form.
“We need to create more chances on goal and also finish the chances we have so we don’t suffer at the end of games,” Martínez said. “So that way we can control the matches and make sure we get the three points.”
To no one’s surprise, Martínez leads the team in goals scored. He has 11 goals on the season in 21 matches played. He scored the game-winner in Atlanta’s come-from-behind victory against Miami on Wednesday. And he almost had another on a questionable offside call in the 71st minute.
“The thing that separates him from other strikers, he needs one chance, puts one in the back of the net,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said.
Martínez is getting support on the pitch from the midfielders, especially Barco and Moreno. He said they make sure to create an outlet for him. Overall, he’s happy with the way the team is playing, specifically about the way the team works together to create chances in the attacking third.
“We have a lot of teammates that are combining well,” he said. “We have some in the past that has been a little selfish, but here in the end we’re trying to get that combination going on and get more chances going.”
On Thursday, MLS announced nominations for its End of Year Awards, and among Atlanta United’s 11 nominations, Martínez was nominated for the Comeback Player of the Year. The award honors an MLS player who has overcome injuries and/or adversity in order to achieve success during the 2021 regular season.
After suffering a torn ACL in the regular season opener in 2020, Martínez has gone on to become the fastest player in league history to score 100 goals for one club in all competitions and lead the list of best-selling MLS jerseys in 2021.
Although, Martínez is putting up impressive numbers this season, he remains hesitant on whether he feels back to his 2018 or 2019 form.
“When you come back from such a bad injury like the one I had, it’s hard to get in a rhythm,” Martinez said. “You play one game pretty good then it takes three more games to get back the rhythm. The team is looking good, and I have to just make sure that I take care of the chances that I have.”
Working his way back has been tough but beautiful. His knee gets sore sometimes and he recently suffered a tight hamstring that kept him out of the previous meeting with Toronto on Oct. 16.
But today, he simply squashed any concerns about his health.
“I’m okay,” he said. “I’m fantastic.”
Before hitting the pitch, the team started the day watching film of their match against Miami.
“I told them sometimes it’s not a film review, it’s a film reflection,” Pineda said.
Pineda conducts these sessions by asking the players questions. For example, “How can we do better here?” or “How can we solve this situation?” or “What are some options in this situation?” The players see the situations on film and start to talk about it. It leads to a collective conversation on how the team can improve.
“Some good discussions there, good arguments about how we want to defend certain areas,” Pineda said.
Pineda described the approach the team has during their film sessions, sometimes not just looking at the final play but the situation that led up to it.
Guzan alluded to this approach specifically during his media session. The team looked at the sequence leading up to the save he made in the 89th minute. Guzan recounted the play in great detail to reporters. Then, he shared how it showed the team how to manage that situation better by preventing the space between the midfielders in the back line from getting too wide.
“Understanding that in that moment, maybe we don’t need to have one of our center midfielders or one of our outside midfielders jump out and try to press a left center back or the left wing back who is 30 yards inside their own half,” Guzan explained. “Maybe we just hold our shape and we stay compact and not give up the space.”
The veteran goalkeeper is taking on the responsibility of leading a young team through those situations. As the team learns how manage specific scenarios, Guzan’s experience plays an important role. He’s been helping them with distribution and how to defend crosses, showing his teammates when to claim balls and relieve pressure, and guiding them through different situations.
“It’s all part of it,” he said. “It’s part of the position and it’s part of my responsibility.”
Final Home Match of the Regular Season
Saturday against Toronto is the final regular-season home match. Unless Atlanta United secures a top-four spot in the conference standings that would mean a home playoff match, it could be the last time the team sees Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2021.
The match is the last of the club’s three-game homestand. The club has gone 1-0-1 so far, picking up four of six possible points with a tie against NYCFC on Oct. 20 and a win against Inter Miami on Oct. 27.
Pineda called Wednesday’s match against Miami intense and described the atmosphere as “playoff-like.” And he expects the same on Saturday.
“I expect that type of close game where the opposition is fighting and giving everything to win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium,” he said.
After the match on Wednesday, the head coach said that his team talked about the energy that the fans brought to the match. Then on Friday, he mentioned they talked about it again during the film session. The atmosphere in the stadium created not only a connection between players, but also between the team and its fans.
“It feels like United,” Pineda said. “And that’s the type of connection that I always talk about. It’s that connection from energy, the collective energy in the stadium that makes us happy and makes us passionate about this game, and that’s what I want to see on Saturday.”
The players are also looking forward to an electric atmosphere at Mercedes-Benz Stadium – and hope Atlanta sports fans will get to experience two big wins from its teams on Saturday night.
“We know it’s a big game, and we’re also aware that the Braves are playing as well,” Guzan said. “So we’re excited about it. We know that it’ll be a great atmosphere. Our fans have never let us down in terms of the atmosphere and the energy that they brought to the stadium. We’re expecting no different.”