We’re heading into the sixth matchday of the season, and the 2023 version of Atlanta United is in a position they’ve yet to face: moving on from a loss.
The club dropped its first game of the season last weekend on the road in Columbus, ending their four-match unbeaten streak to start the season. It was a disappointing result, but one that had the players itching to get back on the pitch to compete. And with a match against New York Red Bulls next on the schedule, Atlanta United used the week to focus on overcoming adverse moments and situations where they might face heavy pressure.
For that reason, head coach Gonzalo Pineda set the theme for this week to reorienting the team’s identity and ‘getting back to who we are.’ The training sessions open to media on Tuesday and Thursday reflected that. The team increased the intensity and worked on winning duels and defending the box at all costs. Toward the end of training on Tuesday, assistant coach Eugenio Villazón worked players through defensive transitions while assistant coach Rob Valentino helped attacking players practice coming back to the ball.
“The intensity that everyone brought this morning was really good to see,” fullback Brooks Lennon said Tuesday. “It’s back to where we are as a team.”
The team’s response after losing in Columbus
In their last match, Atlanta United fell on the road to Columbus Crew. But it wasn’t just a loss, it was a disappointing performance in which the 5-Stripes conceded six goals, more than they’d given up in their first four matches combined.
So, the question heading into this week was how the group would respond. Pineda said he was looking especially at the first training sessions of the week. He needed the team’s first time back on the pitch after the loss to be full of intensity and focus, which is exactly what the head coach got out of his players.
“It was definitely intense today,” Tyler Wolff said. “We put a big premium on making sure that we’re combative and winning duels, but also the togetherness and the reactions after plays don’t go our way. I mean that was a big thing we needed to work on in the game. We didn’t see it there, but we’ve got to move past it. Not get too high or too low, and flip the page to the next week.”
Early in the week, Pineda made it a big emphasis that his players had to move on from Columbus. That match is behind them and at this point they can’t score more goals to make the loss a little easier to stomach. He wanted his team to get back to who they are: a team that likes to possess, counterattack and create a lot of chances.
“It’s always good to just get back on the field as quickly as possible after a loss on the road and a defeat like that,” Lennon said. “You just want to get back on the ball, get back to competing.”
Players returning from international duty
If there’s a positive to take away from Atlanta United’s loss to Columbus Crew it’s the fact that the team was missing some guys who played a role in the four-match unbeaten streak. Atlanta United had seven players called up to play for their home countries during the international break, the most out of any club in MLS.
After taking some time to reflect on the Columbus match, Pineda said that he isn’t one to make excuses and that the situation was a good learning lesson for the squad. And the fact that a result like that happened earlier in the season also helps.
“That’s part of life,” Pineda said. “Everything that happens to you, at times things that you don’t like, are opportunities to learn. And this was a great opportunity for us to learn early in the season how to approach these types of games and these types of windows without a lot of players. How we can plan better the type of games we want to play. It’s a good lesson for me as a coach personally and I hope for the players the same.”
Good news for the club, by Thursday morning’s training session, most of the players who were away during the international break were back in Atlanta. And, most importantly, they were all safe and healthy. Miles Robinson, Derrick Etienne Jr., Ronald Hernández, Giorgos Giakoumakis and Machol Chop were all out on the pitch. The MLS Player of the Month, Thiago Almada, had an individual session Thursday afternoon, which leaves Luis Abram as the only player left to return.
Pineda said that Almada, who scored in the first of Argentina’s two matches this cycle, should be good to go for Atlanta United’s match Saturday. With the international break over, Atlanta United’s head coach will have a fuller roster at his disposal than he did against Columbus Crew.
The returners will also add some depth to the squad, which will be needed after Andrew Gutman went down with an injury in Columbus. Gutman’s injury was reported earlier this week as day-to-day, and Pineda said that he has some flexibility with Caleb Wiley, Aiden McFadden and Ronald Hernández able to fill in at fullback.
Preparing for New York Red Bulls
On Saturday, Atlanta United returns home for the first of two matches they’ll play this season against the New York Red Bulls. The 5-Stripes have never beaten the Red Bulls in the regular season.
New York Red Bulls are a team that implements a unique style of play. They like to apply very high pressure and force opponents on the back foot with their relentless chase. This style of play in a way suits Atlanta United, a team that likes to possess the ball. The higher the pressure the opponent applies, the more space it creates behind, which can be beneficial for a team that likes to attract pressure to create gaps for attacking players.
“What they do well is maintain the compactness in that pressure, so then it’s difficult to find the gaps that they leave, so that’s their style,” Pineda said. “But I will say that it also suits us in some ways. So that’s the battle. Who does better with their style? Who applies it better in certain situations? Who’s clinical in those moments?”
To prepare for the Red Bulls, Pineda and his coaching staff put his players through situations where they encounter intense pressure. In some of the drills, players faced a disadvantage in numbers while possessing the ball. They had to start the attack from the defensive side, under heavy pressure, and build up from it.
The level of intensity Atlanta United saw in training this week may not be exactly as high as Red Bulls, but it got pretty close. Players are confident that it served as a good introduction to the types of situations they’ll face on Saturday against Red Bulls.
“They’re a very high pressing team,” Lennon said. “They try to get in your faces. From the kickoff, they’re going to battle. So, we’ve got to bring the intensity from minute one and I think our quality should show.”