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Training Day: Off-Field Drama and On-Field Refinement

When does Atlanta United get a season of “All or Nothing”

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Tyler Pilgrim

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground boasted perhaps the fairest weather of the season on Thursday as Atlanta United hit the pitch to prepare for their upcoming home match against Toronto FC. A gentle wind meandered across the fields as players trickled from the facility, including Matheus Rossetto, who returned to training for the first time since suffering an ankle injury against Seattle back on August 6th.

One player not on the pitch, however, was Josef Martinez. As widely reported by Felipe Cardenas of The Athletic, Josef was suspended for a week by the club for what will forever be known as “the rice and chicken” or “arroz con pollo” incident.

Syndication: The News-Press Annabelle Tometich/The News-Press USA TODAY Network - Florida / USA TODAY NETWORK

(Don’t worry about how many images needed to be searched to find the right one. Also, you’re hungry now, right?)

The Five Stripes were notably somewhat delayed in their arrival to the training pitch Thursday, but the players immediately dove into rondos and passing drills. Raul Gudiño and Rocco Ríos Novo worked separately on a variety of goalkeeping workouts, including shot-stopping and passing. After the full squad practice, quite a few players stayed out on the pitch to continue working on a variety of skill sets. Ronaldo Cisneros, Franco Ibarra, and Santiago Sosa put the aforementioned goal keepers through their paces by taking shots from the top of the arch, while Luiz Araujo, Aiden McFadden, and Juanjo Purata polished some longer passing opportunities.

Brad Guzan even made a cameo as he dressed out and participated in some relatively light keeper drills, as well. In true Brad fashion, though, he made his presence known as Gonzalo Pineda was addressing the media by yelling across the pitch in reference to the sudden interest in the team, noted by the influx of media at the training center. Unfortunately, controversy sells, and the most recent drama involving Josef Martinez was the main topic of conversation as Pineda, Thiago Almada, and Andrew Gutman addressed the media.

Argentine wonder kid Thiago Almada was the first to take the mic. He made a point of mentioning that the team isn’t allowing any of the news, both of Josef and Miles Robinson, to alter their mindset going forward. He stated that the team as a whole supports each other, and that the situation with Josef peaked from the frustration of the game, pointing out it’s something every player experiences. Notably, Almada said Josef has apologized to the team since the rice and chicken incident, but declined to go into specifics, stating that “what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room. It’s kind of a code.”

-Cue Pirates of the Caribbean “they’re more like guidelines” quote-

Almada also spoke about receiving the call up to the Argentina National Team, stating that it was actually a bit of a surprise. The chance to represent La Albiceleste was clearly a huge deal to the young player, as he said the call was both a “huge joy” and “a huge honor to (his) family.” He’ll be traveling in a couple of weeks to join the team in friendlies against Honduras and Jamaica alongside players like Lionel Messi.

Atlanta United spokesperson captain Andrew Gutman was the next player to speak, specifically telling everyone “good afternoon” as he approached the microphone after getting chastised moments prior for telling someone “good morning.” Andrew’s message consisted heavily of a “just play soccer and stop worrying about all of the drama” vibe, which admittedly should be every player’s focus in moments like these.

Gutman respectfully declined to comment on the Josef situation (don’t blame him). When asked about communication from the front office, he mentioned that Carlos Bocanegra hasn’t addressed the team about the incident.

Questions then pivoted to Gutman’s goal scoring and positioning, and he explained that he and Pineda have discussed taking advantage of spaces that “defenders don’t think about.” He attributed much of this to the fact that guys like Araujo, Cisneros, Almada, and Moreno can heavily occupy other defenders, leaving him tons of surprise area to operate.

After media wrapped up with Gutman, Gonzalo Pineda took the stand. Where Gutman and Almada could only tiptoe around the topic, it was always expected Pineda would certainly need to elaborate on the issue of Josef Martinez.

The notes from the above Twitter posts give quite a bit of insight, but you should definitely make it a point to listen to Five Stripe Final with Joe and Sam (and myself as a guest) for Pineda’s comments as they happened. Gonzo mentioned that he, along with members of the front office (including Steve Cannon), all made the decision to suspend Josef after the rice and chicken incident. However, he mentioned that he truly wants Josef back and doesn’t get the vibe that they each see the issue as one of “him against me.”

Admittedly, Josef’s frustration hasn’t seemed directed at the coaching staff as the season has progressed, either. Looking back on Josef’s comments from the summer, the only entity he’s directly expressed his frustration with has been the one in charge of roster construction.

Pineda did mention, though, that Josef has not apologized to him yet. He also specified that he’s managed other issues with the Venezuelan Viper in the past, indicating that this isn’t the first quarrel during Pineda’s tenure. Gonzo still insisted that their relationship was good, though, and also vehemently pointed out that he and Josef never got physical. He said they stayed 2-3 yards from each other in the locker room in Portland, despite the initial reports describing them needing to be physically separated. It’s absolutely worth mentioning here that in a locker room full of players and staff, the definition of “needed to be physically separated” could have 100 definitions.

Interestingly, Pineda stated that during these ongoing tough, languishing moments, it becomes easier to see who is truly committed to the club. When asked about the need to score goals if the team has any hope of making the playoffs, the gaffer brought up the recent Atlanta United Academy dinner where he espoused the entire club’s belief system and values to the young kids. In his eyes, how can he look those kids in the eye with that message and then place someone on the pitch just to score goals but who isn’t showing those values of commitment and teamwork? Touché.

From there, Pineda was asked about how the club will handle Josef Martinez going forward. His reply revealed that any movement isn’t his decision, and that the entire club has yet to approach the idea of next season. Additionally, he expects Josef to be right back to the training ground on Monday. When questioned further, he also reiterated the same guidelines “code” that Almada mentioned earlier, holding that concept to the very highest esteem.

Finally, in reference to the Miles Robinson situation, Gonzalo Pineda just said that he couldn’t say much (likely for a variety of reasons) but that the club, team, and coaching staff fully supported the star center back.

To those looking for insight into how the team is preparing for Toronto, this wasn’t that style of press conference. Whether it be a sign of the coming death knell of the season or an inward focus by everyone in reference to the drama surrounding the club, the next opponent just...hasn’t seemed to matter much to the fans, and this media scrum personified that feeling. That isn’t to say the team isn’t putting in the training specifically for the match; on the contrary, Gutman and Almada’s comments indicated they very much had a game plan, but the big news of the day was always going to be about Josef. (This also seems like a good time to point out that Lorenzo Insigne didn’t train today with Toronto due to a personal issue).

Regardless of the off-field drama, Atlanta United still has five matches left to, at minimum, prove to a new potential president that they aren’t inheriting a full dumpster fire. Players still have jobs to play for, and if what Pineda said rings true, this’ll be the moment to see who truly wants to wear the badge and help the club regain some of its past status. Hope to see and hear everyone at the Benz this weekend raucously supporting the Five Stripes regardless of current status. In the meantime, and now that at least a portion of the story is out there, be sure to let us know your comments below.