Atlanta United Unified player Alex Eberle never stands in one place for too long. He’s a bundle of energy, constantly moving. At one point during the Unified team’s most recent practice, he did a handstand right there on the pitch. When head coach Marty Jelleme noticed this, he recruited Alex to convert that energy into something productive: moving the goal for the team’s scrimmage.
Something else Alex does is when he learns a new phrase, he likes to repeat it often. The words on Wednesday were certainly applicable: a hot mess.
The words described the weather on Wednesday. It was a very hot evening at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training during the Unified team training. Although the “mess” didn't quite fit the training portion of the night exactly. Jelleme conducted an organized training session, adding structure to manage his team’s high energy.
The head coach along with his assistants put the team through warmups. Then, they broke up into three groups – gold, green and blue – and rotated for some competition. Finally, practice concluded with a 7v7 scrimmage on a condensed field.
It was a lively atmosphere at the training ground on Wednesday. Here are a few more observations and insights from the Unified training session:
It’s been warming up lately – not just in Georgia, but around the world. Temperatures in Atlanta have been hovering in the high 90s, creating a thick heat for mid-June that might make some worry about what’s to come later this summer.
Warming up was an emphasis in the training session as well. The coaches spent a good bit of time at the beginning of training helping the players get familiar with the warmup routine, which involves laps around the pitch, passing drills and keepaway games.
“We did two sets of our warmups that we're going to do for all our games going forward so the kids know what it is, can remember it and I don't have to lead it,” Jellerme said. “Part of this is having our partners take leadership roles and them taking that part so we can concentrate on other stuff and they're doing leadership on top of all the soccer too.”
The team hasn’t practiced a lot lately, missing three out of the last four due to either lightning or excessive heat. Missing some time together made it even more important for the team to review the warmup routine, which set the energetic tone for the rest of the session.
“They haven’t practiced much, so just getting out here I think was huge,” Jelleme said.
Moving Down The Field
It was clear that passing was an important concept in the warmups. Starting out, Jelleme split the group into sections. In the groups, the players passed around a square shape marked by red cones, moving the ball from one corner to another. The assistant coaches encouraged the players to string together consecutive passes, starting with five then moving to 10.
After a few minutes, the assistant coaches added a wrinkle. The player would pass the ball to one corner of the square, then receive the ball right back, creating a give-and-go. This drill created movement as players filled in the corner they had previously just passed to.
“If we can pass, we’ll be able to move down the field better and we'll be able to feed each other and put more pressure on the other defense than if you're just dribbling down the field and not passing,” Jelleme said.
The emphasis on passing carried over into other parts of the team’s training, including the 7v7 scrimmage at the end of training. In a beautiful play, players Xavier Hairston, Michael Mastrangelo, and Dylan Lenze connected to move the ball down the field. Their combination led to a good shot on goal for their teammate, Kelly Robinson.
That kind of organization and connectivity is exactly what Jellerme wants to see out of his team.
“We want to be able to present ourselves well when we go on the field,” Jellerme said.
Last time out, the Unified squad played what Jelleme called “the best they’ve ever played” in the scrimmage against the Atlanta Area School For The Deaf in March. A few months have passed, but the team has been able to carry that momentum into the summer.
“They’re playing even better now,” Jelleme said. “The position play is so much better. I'm super excited to see how we can do against Charlotte.”
The Unified squad has a busy schedule coming up with a few important matches. Up first, a match this weekend against Charlotte FC’s Unified squad. The team at Charlotte is brand new, forming only a couple of months ago, so it will be a good chance for some of Atlanta United’s players to see more time on the pitch.
This weekend also serves as a warmup for the Unified team’s bigger matches this summer. On July 17, Unified will host Orlando at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The match follows the first team’s match during Rivalry Week, and supporters with tickets to that match can stay behind to watch. The match will also be streamed on ATLUTD.com/live so people at home can follow along too.
Then, the club will play a match against New England, which presents a whole new ball game for the Unified squad. The team will play a match that’s 11v11, which is different from the 7v7 team normally plays.
“We've never played 11v11,” Jelleme said. “Offsides, throw-ins, the whole nine yards. So that will be a big, big challenge for these guys.”
Will the hot mess energy from Wednesday’s training carry over to the weekend and the team’s upcoming competitions? The head coach has no doubt:
“The bus ride to Charlotte, I'm bringing earplugs because I have a feeling it’s going to be a very loud and excited bus.”