It’s that time of year. The trees are changing colors – red, yellow, orange. The air is crisp.
Time for the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs.
It was clear at Atlanta United’s training session on Wednesday that’s what the team was training for. We saw intense drills, fierce competition, players who have been sitting out return, and, in perhaps the biggest media turnout since head coach Gonzalo Pineda’s first practice, a stand that can hold multiple microphones.
Pineda’s design for the 14 days in between matches, as he explained last week, was a two-parter: last week, the team spent time working on self-improvements like faster play and finishing drills. This week, the team is making specific preparations for Sunday’s matchup.
“It’s going to be important that we show up ready to play because I know New York City is certainly going to bring it, and if we want to do something special in a short amount of time, we have to make sure we come prepared for Sunday,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said after practice.
Atlanta United participated in their regular keep away and cascaritas games. During the middle part of practice, the team broke off and competed in a high-paced passing drill that split players on either side of two halves. The team had to move the ball quickly up-and-down the field, seeing what passing lanes were available in tight spaces. Pineda and assistant coach Rob Valentino were very vocal, giving constant instruction. When a team scored or the ball went out of bounds, Pineda played a new ball in rapidly to keep the players going.
In the cascaritas games that concluded practice, the fast play continued. The team divided into four and scrimmaged against one another. At one point, striker Josef Martínez, on the orange team, shouted for his scrimmage teammate to come on and meet his pass. In a nice combination for the blue team, defender Miles Robinson passed out wide to striker Jake Mulraney, who then passed it back centrally to midfielder Franco Ibarra. Ibarra found a lane up the middle to striker Luiz Araújo right near the goal line. The striker tried to toe the ball into goal, but goalkeeper Ben Lundgaard timed it well and blocked the shot.
“It’s ‘do-or-die’ situation,” defender Brooks Lennon said. “Every single 90 minutes that you’re going to play from here on out, you’ve got to give everything you have in your body every single second of the game because every play matters. So we’re really excited for Sunday. And I think the guys are prepared.”
Here are a few more insights and observations from the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground on Wednesday.
Pineda wasn’t available to speak to media on Wednesday, but his presence was felt in a big way. He was extremely vocal during training, giving instructions in a blend of Spanish and English. He told his team to play faster (“Vamos!” “Rápido!”) and encouraged them not to think too much and just play.
“Look over your shoulder, where’s the goal?” he called out to help his players understand where they were on the field.
Atlanta’s head coach knows what it means to play in big moments. He was a member of Mexico’s national team that competed in the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. During his time as an assistant coach in Seattle, the Sounders made three MLS Cup Finals appearances in four seasons and won the Cup in 2019.
“It shows you what kind of competitor he is, what his desire is to win and be on a winning team,” Guzan said. “And I think he’s been able to pass that message along to us.”
Pineda’s MLS experience helps Atlanta United in its fourth-ever berth in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Not only did he learn a lot from his mentor, Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer, but the experience in Seattle taught him the nuances of MLS, physicality of playing intense matchups and mental strength it takes to compete in high stakes environments.
“I think what Gonzalo has brought to the group is the ability to get the best out of individual guys and understand that what works for this guy may not work for that guy and vice versa, and being able to maximize the skills and the talent in our group," Guzan said.
Described as “a player’s manager,” Guzan and Lennon both credited their head coach with his influence on the team’s culture. Lennon spoke on how Pineda has learned about everyone’s motivations and gets to know each of his players on a personal level.
“Just his communication, on and off the field, has really gained confidence in his side,” Lennon said.
An important component for Pineda is having Valentino on the bench with him. Like Pineda, Valentino has a personable relationship to his players. He’s been an important part of Atlanta United making it to this point, guiding the team to a four-game winning streak as interim head coach earlier this season, and on Tuesday the club rewarded him with a contract extension.
Pineda and Valentino, both have that “players first” mentality. And, as the passing drills showed today, they're working hard to make sure their guys stay sharp for the biggest stage.
“The margins are so fine in the playoffs, there’s no tomorrow,” Guzan said. “It’s about making sure you do the business on the day.”
Some of the points the team worked on included preparing to play at Yankee Stadium, where NYCFC will host Atlanta United on Sunday. The pitch is narrow, measuring at 110x70 yards, making it the smallest in MLS. It’s home to the New York Yankees.
“That stadium was not meant for soccer games,” Guzan said.
The smaller field gives it a different feel than Atlanta United’s home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and the dimensions make it important for players to be able to play in tight spaces. To get used to the different feel, the team made some tweaks to its training. It mapped out a narrower shape onto the practice field at the Training Ground. The ability for both attackers to move the ball quickly, and for defenders to be prepared for the pace of play, was a central focus.
“New York City FC is a really good team,” Lennon said. “They are good in tight areas, so we’ve been preparing for that.”
NYCFC has spent some of their season in New Jersey, splitting time at Red Bull Arena with the New York Red Bulls. However, NYCFC has been successful when its played at Yankee Stadium in 2021. The club has gone 6-1-2 in nine matches at Yankee Stadium, which helped it secure that No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
“We can’t use it as an excuse,” Guzan said. “We’ve got to be ready for a dog fight, whether it be in Yankee Stadium or wherever.”
Several players were back at training on Wednesday, including two midfielders who have been dealing with injuries off-and-on over the last few weeks. Marcelino Moreno and Santiago Sosa appeared to be playing at full strength without limitations.
“To have them back on the field is certainly a bonus for us,” Guzan said.
Also on the pitch was Robinson. The defender returned to Atlanta after spending the last week with the U.S. men’s national team as it looks to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
The international experience is helping Robinson’s game develop into an elite defender. The 24-year-old was named one of three finalists for Defender of the Year in the 2021 MLS Year-End Awards.
“I think over the last six months or so the thing that’s impressed me the most is his distribution and being able to play out of the back,” Guzan said. “I think he’s certainly grown into his own type of player, his own style of being a center back. It’s great from a teammate perspective to see where he started and to see where he is now.”
Robinson played 89 minutes in USA’s 2-0 victory over Mexico before receiving his second yellow card. The penalty made him unavailable for the national team’s match against Jamaica on Tuesday.
Although his early exit from the November World Cup qualifiers was frustrating, the penalty was a little fortuitous for Atlanta United. The team was happy to get one of their best defenders back a little earlier than expected ahead of a huge game on Sunday.
“We’re obviously extremely excited for him on an individual level, but also as a team level to have him back in preparing for a huge game Sunday,” Guzan said.
For The City
A season full of ups and downs. New acquisitions. A strong belief. An experienced skipper at the helm.
Some might describe Atlanta United’s run that way, but it could also refer to another Atlanta sports team. One that’s coming off an improbable postseason run and winning the franchise’s first championship in 26 years.
The Atlanta Braves.
As Atlanta continues to celebrate the Braves’ World Series win, Atlanta United players are drawing inspiration from their brothers just a few miles down I-75.
“They were kind of the underdog going into the World Series, and it’s great to see the Braves come out on top, and we’ve definitely gained some confidence just by watching them,” Lennon said.
Many Atlanta United players followed the Braves postseason run. Martínez made an appearance at Truist Park during the Braves series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Several other players, including Alex De John, rooted for the Braves and followed them along their run.
The 2021 season so far for Atlanta United has shared a lot of similarities with the 2021 Braves. Both teams had to overcome adversity during their regular seasons. Both showed their best form late in the season.
And, of course, both play to make their city proud.
“It’s great to see the city of Atlanta get behind a sports team like that,” Lennon said. “So we’re hoping the city gets behind us on Sunday and pushes us to get a result.”
Learn where you can watch with other 17s at atlutd.com/playoffs and stay up-to-date on the latest coverage on the MLS Cup Playoffs.