The preseason is so...temperamental. On one hand, no one wants to draw mass conclusions from a friendly match where the very rules of the game are changed; on the other hand, humans tend to initially take everything in life at face value...like soccer scores.
Atlanta United lost 4-3 to Toluca in the second American Family Insurance Cup on Wednesday night, and at face value, that sounds bad. But the game provided the best insight into Gonzalo Pineda’s Five Stripes (for real Five Stripes again) of 2023 thus far and, more importantly, it was simply an enjoyable return to soccer for fans in Atlanta.
Oh, and there was a kit launch and laser show.
Fire and lazerssssss #ATLUTD pic.twitter.com/4ucC2AQlMn— Scarves and Spikes ⚽ (@ScarvesNSpikes) February 16, 2023
The actual takeaways from the soccer side of the experience will be discussed, but relish for a moment as a fan and celebrate the fact that Atlanta was able to invite another top-flight Mexican team up to the Deep South and welcome over 28,000 fans into Mercedes-Benz Stadium. DJ EU had the stadium rockin’, the supporters were loud (including Toluca’s), the beautiful new “17’s kit” made its first appearance, and the whole experience was a party.
The Five Stripes (it just feels better typing that now that they’re back to wearing a proper striped kit) kicked off the match with tons of pressure and positivity, putting three shots on goal in the first 10 minutes. In fact, the attack was genuinely fun to watch. Thiago Almada, Luiz Araujo, Machop Chol, Caleb Wiley, and Brooks Lennon all looked dangerous early on, and it was thanks to Lennon and Araujo that Atlanta took an early 2-0 lead. Araujo and Almada, for their part, could’ve each had another tally on the scoresheet, as could Machop.
No. - Luiz Araújo pic.twitter.com/dfx0drjopn— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) February 16, 2023
The second half saw the young guys step up against an almost first-choice Toluca side, and it was Luke Brennan who next found the back of the net. A cross was sent in by Aiden McFadden to a waiting Ajani Fortune, who had the eye to lay off a simple header to the wide open Brennan who slotted it home.
17s, we'd like to introduce you to Luke Brennan pic.twitter.com/AhkzrymeAB— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) February 16, 2023
Unfortunately, the midfield and defense had some clear kinks to work out, and if there was anything in which to be concerned from what fans saw in this match, it’s the lack of urgency to shut down attackers in and around the box. Toluca’s players had far too much time to line up and direct shots, and twice in the first half the supporters saw Quentin Westberg diving after a ball that luckily slid just outside either post. Regardless, the half ended 2-2 thanks to some lax defensive work.
To play devil’s advocate, Noah Cobb and Juanjo Purata didn’t get a ton of help from their midfield, either, and that’s the larger concern. The pairing of Matheus Rossetto and Franco Ibarra just hasn’t been the caliber Atlanta United needs, and that hearkens back to matches when they were paired in 2022, so there’s at least some sample size to chew on here. Some combination of either of those two alongside Santiago Sosa, Amar Sejdic, and eventually, Ozzie Alonso, may be a much better mingling of talent than what’s currently being shown, but the two together don’t seem to provide the cohesiveness that’s needed in the middle of the pitch.
For the center back position, Miles Robinson and Luis Abram/Juanjo Purata can likely provide an efficient safety net, but they’re too often being left out to dry because of sketchy turnovers at midfield. Pineda will definitely have some decisions to make before the first match on February 25th, depending on who he has available, but it was nice to see the attack looking hungry and dangerous.
Ultimately, the AmFam Cup was a great event for the fans and the city, and the experience for the players against a solid Liga MX side may prove invaluable as the MLS season looms around the corner. Take a look below at what Pineda, Caleb Wiley, Luke Brennan, Juanjo Purata, and Ronald Hernandez had to say just after the match.
Atlanta United Head Coach Gonzalo Pineda:
On how the attack looked tonight; how defense looked
“Yes, I think it was a very interesting game. First half I felt like we created a lot of chances and were very mobile. We were running hard and attacking the right spaces but we need to be more clean as well. To me, we had 5 chances and we only scored two. Three or four would’ve been a better number so then there would be a bit of distance between the two teams. After that, obviously, the same thing happened against Cruz Azul where we’re leading and winning. Then, there are certain lapses of the game where we lose control of the game and its not just defense as fragile as you said but we lose control of the game. There’s good possession, moments of the game, areas of the field to play where we could be more direct but talking about Giakoumakis probably that’s something he can help with. In the second half, it puts an immediate smile on my face because of the pride, good football that a bunch of kids play against a very good team. In the second half, the beginning was almost the starting lineup for Toluca. Luke Brennan and everyone, I don’t want to name too many is just encouraging all of their good work and representing Atlanta kudos to all the coaches who are doing a great job. Unfortunately, we lost, but I really like what the young kids brought into the game.
On Machop Chol being taken out of the game for injury or precaution?
“He said he felt a little bit of a sensation in his hamstring but he said it is not that bad, but I prefer the precaution to take him out.”
On Rossetto and Ibara pairing.. have you seen progress?
“Yes, I would say yes. At times, the analysis when you put only single players or only a pair of players in that part of the field it is unfair because the collective that has to work together. So I told you these certain goals, people that don’t touch the ball they participate in their stretching. For example, Rosetto I felt that he could have been a little higher on the field during this game. Trying to take the back were the center mids so maybe Ibarra has more time in his space when one of the centers is pressing him. But those are things that we need a little bit of time with. But overall, I think they are doing better compared to the first couple days.
On backup striker situation right now? One guy or number of players?
“We have to see the skill and we have one more guy to bring in and decide which position as second forward or one of those. I think I am happy with what I see from Machop you see the movement behind how at times he is attracting a center back. I like that part, obviously Giakoumakis is in town and hopefully the visa is solved shortly.”
Atlanta United FC defender Caleb Wiley
On how he played and how the offense looked as a whole:
“For me personally, I thought I did alright, but I think I could have been more involved in some of the plays going forward. But that happens, I don’t get the ball often, so I have to be a louder voice on the field and start demanding the ball. I thought the offense was really good though. I thought we created a lot of chances, some chances that could have been better, but I thought the chances were there and we did well with them.”
On how he is approaching being asked to learn two positions:
“I am always flexible. Wherever [Gonzalo Pineda] puts me, I am going to go there and do my best. Left wing is a position that I played a little bit last year and a few years before in the USL as well as during the Academy, so I am familiar with it, and just having Andrew Gutman behind me and communicating with me helps a lot.
On what he is working on as a winger:
“The one-versus-one attacking and the positioning on the field, getting into the box, staying wide, and the runs behind, being able to use my speed.”
On Luke Brennan’s goal and his thoughts about Luke’s play:
“[Luke] is a great player. He is very attacking minded and will get after you one-on-one. He is very creative on the ball, and as we all saw out there tonight, he is capable of scoring goals.”
Atlanta United FC defender Juanjo Purata
On Noah Cobb’s performance
“I think he had a good game. He’s a guy who works well that has good qualities and we hope that we can contribute when we need him.”
On Toluca pressing, making it difficult for Atlanta to play out from the back and how the team can improve that
“Toluca is a great team. They came to play their soccer, and I know that in Mexico they play good soccer. I know some of them. And they’ve played six or seven games playing every weekend and we’ve only played four preseason games. We have certain things to improve. But I think we’re on a good path. There are positive things, other things to improve, and there’s not much time because next weekend we start the season at home.”
On Toluca’s first goal and what the team could have done better
“I think it was a fast play. We need to be more attentive. Those are errors that happen in a game. And we have to be attentive.”
On correcting a repeated theme: being attentive
“With hard work every day.”
Atlanta United forward Luke Brennan:
On how Pineda complimented his play in these games:
“It means a lot obviously. I’ve just got to keep working hard and it feels nice to be complimented by him.”
On if there have been any talks of a homegrown contract:
“Not yet, hopefully soon though. I just want to keep working hard and show myself off as much as I can.”
On what we should know about him:
“That I’ll work hard and I just want my team to win.”
On how the second half group did:
“I thought we did well. They’re a good team and I thought we worked hard and fought well but fell an unlucky result in the end.”
Atlanta United defender Ronald Hernandez:
On his opinion about the team and how they are doing:
“I believe that we have played a great preseason in Mexico. We have had 6-7 weeks together. I think that we are bunch of young guys that want to succeed. The style that we are wanting to implement is showing slowly on the field as we have seen in previous games. The only thing is to believe. Believe with intensity, intelligence, and great attitude. To follow great players such as Thiago and Luis at the front of our attack; we are going to enjoy this season greatly.”
On fans supporting, but also doubting the team
“Honestly that is on the team. We all attack, we all defend. It is easy to say that the defensive side is weak, but I think that all depends. We know that last season we suffered a lot on that part. We have spoken about to get better and there are still things that we can do better, but the team’s attitude is non-negotiable.”
On how the new teammates have adapted to the team:
“We try to. Those who have been here longer, we try to involve them the most that we can. We know what they can do, and players are important. The faster they adapt, the better for the group.”
The first match of the year in Mercedes-Benz Stadium also meant the post-match Twitter Spaces show has returned! Tyler, Tommy, and Sydney kicked off the first of many chat sessions with a great conversation about the match, the kit, the laser show, and so much more. Click below to listen, and make sure you’re following the Scarves and Spikes guys over on their Twitter and Youtube!
February 16, 2023