There were a few bright spots at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground on this cloudy Tuesday as the team celebrated a big birthday and Thiago Almada spoke to the media for the first time since arriving to Atlanta.
A small group, donning the team’s new red training gear, practiced on the pitch. The group included Almada, Miles Robinson, Marcelino Moreno, Santiago Sosa as well as some substitutes not used during the team’s last match. The goalkeepers, including Brad Guzan who had six saves against Charlotte FC, trained as well in the furthest corner of the pitch.
Assistant coach Eugenio Villazon ran the passing drills that culminated in players taking shots on miniature goals. One of the goals had a hole in the netting, which ended up sending a few soccer balls in the direction of reporters on the side observing training.
Guzan was probably the only starter training on Tuesday. Most of the starters were recovering, but a few made their way outside the facility. Matheus Rossetto, Alan Franco, Ozzie Alonso and Ronald Hernández played a few rounds of soccer table tennis. They used the same slanted table where head coach Gonzalo Pineda and assistant coach Diego de la Torre competed last week.
A few more starters, like George Campbell, joined the pitch later for a special moment. It was Robinson’s 25th birthday yesterday, so the team celebrated when training was over. Dom Dwyer grabbed a bucket and drenched Robinson with water. Then, the staff brought out a cake and – well, you know what happens next.
We’ve seen a few of these birthday traditions at this point, and I have to say – Robinson got hit particularly well. Cake splattered all over the ground, and Robinson was nearly unrecognizable walking off the pitch wearing a mask of icing. Even Campbell, who handled the cake smashed into Robinson’s face, left the pitch with white icing in his hair.
Tuesday was also a big day for one of the newest players to join Atlanta United. Almada made his first appearance at media availability after training. He was the only member of the team to speak to media, so here were a few things the soft-spoken midfielder had to say:
On Arriving To Atlanta
The club announced it signed Almada as a designated player on Feb. 9. Almada is a 20-year-old midfielder from Ciudadela, Argentina. In 100 matches, he scored 24 goals and recorded 11 assists for his previous team, Vélez Sarsfield, in Argentina.
Almada arrived to Atlanta last week, over a month from when his transaction was first announced. He joined the club in Mexico during the team’s preseason trip in February and started the team’s scrimmage against Chivas on Feb. 13. Following Mexico, however, Almada returned to Argentina, along with teammates Sosa and Franco Ibarra, to wait on his visa before traveling to the U.S.
“I was a little anxious,” he said of the wait. “I wanted to be here, I wanted to get to know everybody at the club. It worked well at the end. I’m here and I’m ready to fight for everything we have to fight.”
Last Thursday was Almada’s first day at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground, and he trained on his own. The next day, he practiced with the team for the first time in Atlanta, getting just one session in before playing in Sunday’s match.
Ever since getting to Atlanta, Almada said that he’s been welcomed by the club – everyone from the coaches all the way to the kitchen staff.
“Honestly, it was great, they made me feel like I was part of the group immediately,” he said. “And everybody was so welcoming – players, the staff, people around the club – everybody has been helpful.”
On Playing Against Charlotte
Almada made his debut with the club on Sunday, March 13 in the 2-1 win over Charlotte FC. He entered the match in the 56th minute as a sub for forward Tyler Wolff. The Atlanta United fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium gave him an outpouring of applause, erupting when the announcer called out his name.
“I got goosebumps at that moment,” he said. “It was amazing. I felt like I was being filled with joy, and I want to return that joy to the fans.”
There was a chance that Almada wouldn't play on Sunday, given he arrived to the club just a few days prior, but he attributed the coaching staff with helping him feel ready to go.
“Honestly, I felt okay,” he said. “I spoke with the coach. The coach gave me the confidence that this is a step-by-step process to build up to it. But I felt confident on Sunday, and I felt okay.”
Atlanta United ended up in a close match against Charlotte FC that was tied 1-1 up until stoppage time. Jake Mulraney came up with the game-winner in the 96th minute to give Atlanta United three points.
Of his first match in MLS, Almada said he noticed the intensity of the athletes and credited the technique of the players on the pitch.
“It was a good introduction to the pace of the league,” Almada said. “Even if it was a few minutes, I didn’t have enough time to get the grasp of the whole game, but it was a good introduction to the league. And now I need to understand what I have to work on for next week.”
Returning The Joy
The next match for Atlanta United is at home against CF Montreal on Saturday, March 19. It could be an opportunity for Almada to see more minutes. While the midfielder wants to help the team, he doesn’t want to rush into adapting to a new role.
“I want to go step-by-step first,” he said. “I want to be a starter, then I want to be an important piece of the team. I want to help the club fight for the titles that they need to be fighting for.”
It could be a gradual process for Almada to become a 90-minute player for Atlanta United. After Sunday’s match, Pineda said that he’ll be careful with managing Almada’s minutes so that the player can have the right path to success, a choice Almada is amenable to.
“I’m 100 percent at the disposition of the coach,” Almada said. “So, if the coach wants me to play the whole game, I can do that. If he gives me just a couple of minutes, I can do that.”
Whatever amount he plays against Montreal, it’ll be another chance for Almada to build trust with his teammates. And with it being a home match, Almada will get another chance to connect with Atlanta fans, an aspect he seemed to relish on Sunday. He was reportedly one of the last players to leave the tunnel after the match, taking his time to meet with fans and sign autographs.
“I felt great coming into the field,” Almada said. “It was a great sensation in the stadium. Seeing everybody there, I felt a lot of joy. And I’m really happy to be here.”