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Atlanta United Training Day With Ajani Fortune and Juanjo Purata

The lads enjoy the clean sheet but press forward to focus on Portland

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Charlotte FC Griffin Zetterberg-USA TODAY Sports

The last couple of weeks at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground have been classic Georgia “first spring” weather with a ridiculous pollen count. This particular Tuesday after Atlanta United’s 3-0 win over Charlotte FC was just plain “second winter” cold.

The wind was blustery and the temperature not far above freezing as Gonzalo Pineda walked across the pitch to continue the now-weekly (and much appreciated) tradition of explaining the day’s drills to the media.

“It’ll be a lighter load this week because of how hard we’ve been pushing the guys,” he explained as he pointed out the two main locations for the scenarios. The coaching staff wanted to tone back the intensity in line with feedback from the sports science department while not losing the forward momentum from the last few weeks.

Pineda first described a drill of his own creation, affectionately and forever referred to as the “Gonzo drill.” It encourages players to play cleanly through heavy traffic and create passing lanes off the ball, and consists of an octagonal playing surface. Six players surround the outside and must play through and across the playing surface, while two teams of three are inside the octagon. The two teams focus on playing the ball through to the other side and have to flip to defense if the ball is turned over. It’s the fast-pace of a rondo with a few specific rules to create a variety of passing opportunities and openings in tight spaces, and Pineda was loudly encouraging the guys to continue moving to open up lanes.

The second drill was decidedly larger and consisted of a much bigger octagon with three small goals in the center facing outward. Outside the octagon sat four other small goals, spaced evenly near the lines and facing in. A small amount of players waited and moved outside the octagon, playing the ball in to the team attacking the inner goals. Those outside players were only allowed one touch when they received the ball and served as a quick catalyst to play in the team towards the inner goals. The other team focused on defending the center goals before quickly hitting the outside goals on the counter after a turnover. Assistant coach Rob Valentino was heavily involved in fine-tuning the movements of the players as they prepare for the numerical overloads they’re likely going to face against Portland, and both drills were designed to set up those overloads in favor of Atlanta.

The main training session ended and the interviews promptly began while a handful of forwards and midfielders continued with light finishing drills. Ajani Fortune was the first to arrive at the podium to shouts and fanfare of “Big Timer!” by the ever vocal Brooks Lennon.

Fortune, who cut his teeth with Atlanta United 2 and featured as one of their captains last season, got his first MLS minutes on Saturday against Charlotte FC. Short as those minutes were, Gonzalo Pineda has hinted over the past few weeks that his time was coming. Ajani laughed as he recalled that he wasn’t sure if the ref would call the subs before the final whistle blew that day, and he heard some fans behind him chortling that he would miss his chance. Regardless, he made his initial appearance and spoke about how his next goal is to play more games and learn from the vast knowledge that exists among the players in the first team.

Juanjo Purata was the next player to grace the podium, and as he walked up he was surprisingly the first one to speak.

“I’m going to try this in English,” he said, smiling.

And he proceeded to answer every question in English (very well, it’s worth adding) about his chemistry with Miles Robinson and the rest of the center back corps. Purata said he was happy to have kept the clean sheet against Charlotte and that he and Miles were developing great chemistry. It wasn’t perfect, he added, and he noted that Luis Abram and Noah Cobb were heavily involved in the competition at those spots. Purata also spoke about helping Noah’s growth at that position by working with him on specifics like positioning and other details. He also described Miles as a “great national team player and an even greater human,” on Miles’ 26th birthday, no less.

When asked about scoring goals, Purata laughed and said he’d love to get back to hitting the back of the net, “maybe next game.” But he said what’s most important to him is keeping the clean sheet, a sentiment that Atlanta United fans can probably get behind. He was also asked about his loan status, and he mentioned that he was here for the rest of the year but hoped he could stay in Atlanta permanently. He humbly noted that he wanted to be “a champion with Atlanta” before he left.

Purata finished and walked off from the podium before turning and giving one final shout, “Thanks to my English teacher.” Everyone congratulated him on an outstanding bilingual interview, as it was clear how far he’s come.

One final, quick note from the training ground: the team continues to work week after week on many of the weak spots in their particular game, and it’s very noticeable that the squad is being given the tools to succeed. If you remember, I pointed out the drills last week about restarting play from dead ball situations such as free kicks and throw ins. Go back and watch the second Atlanta United goal against Charlotte where Caleb Wiley provided the assist; it started from a throw in. The positive signs are visible, and if the team continues to execute with upward momentum they’ll be a tough team to slow down. sure to stretch when it’s this cold. Please.