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Training Day: Master vs Apprentice

Gonzalo and Atlanta United prepare for Seattle and Pineda’s former mentor

MLS: Atlanta United FC at LA Galaxy Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone loves the classic master and apprentice tale. Quite frankly, this weekend’s Atlanta United vs Seattle Sounders match has one of the best underlying stories of the MLS season as Gonzalo Pineda prepares to take on Brian Schmetzer for the first time since the former left Seattle for the Five Stripes.

To set the stage, both teams need points, both clubs have a ton of talent, and both managers are pragmatic in their approach to each game. Atlanta, however, is going through a massive transition with the exodus of Darren Eales, while Seattle is consistently building on its dynasty status after winning Concacaf Champions League earlier this year. Brian Schmetzer certainly isn’t going to go easy on Pineda, so how is the former padawan preparing for the upcoming showdown? To get some insight, let’s take a look at the buzz around the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Center as the battle approaches.

In what would inevitably become an eventful Thursday, the morning began quietly enough as the players trickled out onto the training pitch. Most notably, Brooks Lennon was back with the group alongside Ronald Hernandez as both were upgraded to questionable status for Saturday’s showdown. Andrew Gutman also made his presence known when the group began rondos, and thought Gutman played some minutes last weekend, the sight of so many players returning from injury was a sight for (literal) sore eyes.

The soundless Georgia morning was quickly interrupted, however, as the coaching staff quickly upped the tempo and the players responded in earnest. The two rondo groups were energetic, loud, and a bit raucous as the weather got hotter, and the guys genuinely seemed to be enjoying the early competition. Edwin Mosquera, Atlanta’s newest winger and the club’s first Colombian player, seemed to fit right in with the group consisting of talent like Luiz Araujo, Josef Martinez, Marcelino Moreno, Santiago Sosa, and plenty of others. Gonzalo Pineda would later go on to mention that Mosquera is actually progressing much faster than the staff had anticipated, and that one of Atlanta’s fitness coaches had actually traveled to spend time with Edwin for over a week to bring him up to speed.

The young winger took some time to answer questions after training, hitting on a variety of topics related to his arrival to the U.S. and training with the club. He specifically mentioned that he’s grateful to be in his position and that he hopes to be an inspiration for other younger players who may come from a similar background. He also described himself as very direct and speedy, and a player who enjoys taking on players 1v1, a sentiment echoed by Pineda when asked about what Mosquera brings to the squad.

Younger players (and admittedly older ones, too) can be caught by surprise the first time they enter a wide-open Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the atmosphere the supporters convey. Mosquera, however, was quick to dispel any concern about pressure, noting that he’s played in Buenos Aires’ famous La Bombonera (who needs eardrums). Pineda also pointed out that Edwin can play both flanks as a true winger, so it’s probably expected that fans will eventually see him in a potential late-game role for either Caleb Wiley, Luiz Araujo, Brooks Lennon, or Ronald Hernandez, especially if the team keeps a shape that allows more defensive stability for the wings.

Gonzalo Pineda went on to address the recent drama surrounding comments about Thiago Almada. He mentioned that he admittedly didn’t choose the best words when describing how he has to make decisions about who starts and plays, and that he was regretful for the fact that what he said even implied that Almada was anything but a professional. Pineda also pointed out that he gives players the freedom to choose certain additional training, such as reviewing film on their own or hitting the gym or pitch, and that everything is factored into the decisions that are made.

Of course, the main topic was always going to be Pineda’s preparation for the match against his former club and mentor. The gaffer was quick to dive into how he believed Schmetzer would approach the match, noting that he absolutely believed that the game wasn’t going to be stretched, at least in the early stages. This calls into question whether the team can hold their phenomenal possession stat, currently second in MLS at 57.5%, and subsequently convert chances as they battle against a very disciplined Seattle side. Unfortunately, that stat and the number of goals scored aren’t syncing the way they should be, and Pineda reiterated that the lack of vertical runs in behind as been punishing them all season.

Training wound down and some of the players took to a competition around the Teqball (soccer table-tennis, whatever we want to call it) table that quickly flamed into some heavy feuding amongst Alex de John, Andrew Gutman, Luiz Araujo, Matheus Rossetto, Ronald Hernandez, and a few others. The main point to be taken from the impromptu session, though, was the sense of genuine camaraderie that only helps build the chemistry for the players on the pitch. They were having a good time, and that’s always a good sign.

But wait, there’s more.

A match week of these proportions can be a crucial turning point in a season; admittedly, Atlanta United fans are hoping that any given fixture will be that moment in what’s been a rough season thus far. However, breaking away from the norm is sometimes the best medicine. Brian Schmetzer said as much when he chatted with Atlanta United media on Thursday before the Sounders headed to the airport.

It’s very clear that Pineda and Schmetzer hold the highest respect for each other, and though this match pins the two as enemies for 90 minutes, there’s something incredibly calming for an Atlanta fan in hearing a coach of Schmetzer’s magnitude essentially espousing that “it’ll all be okay.” The longtime Sounder’s guru also mentioned that every coach can come out of situations like Atlanta’s current predicament all the better from the adversity, and that he believes Pineda will absolutely lead the Five Stripes to the playoffs. He also said that one quality of Pineda’s that fans can take some solace in, despite the run of form, is that he absolutely despises losing.

Of course, Pineda is having to filter out a ton of outside noise at the moment. Schmetzer’s words are wise and true, so here’s hoping the apprentice is able to put them into practice as he continues to battle with injuries, a bit of a learning curve, and sheer dumb luck. Additionally, the club is going through a transitionary moment so the distractions are aplenty.

One such distraction is the impending departure of Darren Eales and the search for the a new president. Schmetzer even went as far as mentioning that he’d also heard the same fan rumors about Garth Lagerway being a potential interviewee for the position, and specifically described him as a “hot commodity.” At this point, though, no such interviews have happened yet, nor is there any official word on anyone who’s in the crosshairs.

So, the lines have been drawn, the battlefield prepared. Training day is over and now there’s a sense of the calm before the storm. Could this be the match that gets Atlanta United back on track? Or does it become another bump in the road as the 2022 season slowly falls out of reach? Saturday is the big day, and all that’s left now is to sit back and...pop a bottle of Newcastle?

From a personal standpoint, receiving a 12 pack of Newcastle from Darren Eales as part of the media was not on any of my bingo cards, but I’m incredibly grateful and yes, genuinely saddened once again that such a personality won’t be with the club much longer. It’s going to be wonderful to see how the city sends him off on this new adventure across the pond. Now, where’s the bottle opener?