There’s a unique sound that is synonymous with Atlanta United training sessions. That sound comes directly from the mouth of the manager, Tata Martino.
It’s undeniably the sound of preseason, and the players are running around with smiles on their faces, pep in their step, and a few more misplaced passes than we’ll likely see in a few weeks.
“This is amazing. I haven’t seen that many training grounds, but from what I’ve seen, this is the best one in the league and sets the bar for other teams in the league,” said Darlington Nagbe after Wednesday’s training session.
Nagbe, a veteran presence with the U.S. Men’s National Team and one of the Atlanta’s high profile signings of the offseason, has the difficult task of bringing his renowned skill and talent to a team already full of attacking pieces.
“There’s a lot of speed here. A lot of guys who are good on the ball. But the biggest thing I’ve seen is that guys don’t have speed only -- they’re good technically with the ball at their feet,” said Nagbe. “I’m open to playing any position. I think my biggest thing is just to get on the field and get touches of the ball. I’m comfortable in the middle, getting up and down a little bit and just getting touches on the ball and dictating the flow of the game.”
For once, Nagbe’s position hasn’t been a point of debate — many expect him to slot into the center of midfield in a pairing alongside the hard tackling Chilean, Carlos Carmona. This is in contrast to a more familiar face around the facility — MLS’s reigning Rookie of the Year Julian Gressel. With the additions of Nagbe and Ezequiel Barco coming later this camp, Gressel appears to be the player that is getting pushed to the margins. But don’t tell him that.
“I want to play. I want to start,” Gressel said with an air of confidence. “That’s just my mentality. I’m not just going into this being content just coming off the bench. I want to be in the first team every game, and I want to try to show that every single day on the pitch.”
It’s hard to see who Gressel would keep out of Atlanta’s midfield, but according to him, he’s not concerned about where he plays so long as he’s on the field.
“It doesn’t matter what position. If it’s as a wing back, right back, central midfield as a No. 8, it doesn’t matter. I just want to play,” said Gressel. “I played [fullback] in Germany for a long time. I played a whole season at right and left back. Obviously not at this level, but it’s up to Tata as to where he wants to put me.”
The language from Gressel is strong, but he doesn’t come across as bitter or upset at Atlanta’s offseason moves. If anything, Gressel is looking to become a better professional this season, and that starts with taking more of a leadership role on the team. He says he’s trying to help his rookie teammates integrate into the club as quickly as possible, whether that is helping them with something on the pitch or recommending a place to look for housing or dining around town. All of this leads to a more cohesive unit while improving himself simultaneously.
“You just feel a lot more comfortable [this season]. It’s ‘ok, I’ve seen all this’ and now it’s just about getting to work and getting better as a whole team,” said Gressel. “[I’ll] continue to do what I’ve done and to get better, to add more quality, to be a little more consistent. That’s the number one thing for me this year is to just day-in-day out be ready to go.”
The familiarity that Gressel talks about manifests itself in many ways. While it helps the team — players already have an idea of each other’s movements on the field — Gressel says the familiarity with everything helps him focus on the job at hand each day at training.
“Last year we didn’t have a home at this point,” said Gressel. “It’s really a lot easier this year to just come here and focus on what you have to do on the field. You have your routines. Every guy has [routines], and it’s a lot easier this year because we have this facility, we know the coaches and know how they work and what they want. So it’s easier to push on and take that next step.”
And the team and club as a whole will look to do exactly that in 2018.